Mark Avery: Britain's most controversial bird


Common Pheasant is the most controversial UK bird – partly because it isn't really a UK bird, but also because its public familiarity owes everything to it being shot in its millions every year. If I visit my favourite Cambridgeshire pub, The Pheasant, I'll likely see live pheasants in the fields and dead ones squashed on the road on my journey.

Common though it is, this is a non-native: an Asian species which perhaps just sneaks into eastern Europe as a native bird, but which is present across much of Europe and North America, and beyond, because people like to shoot it. We've probably had pheasants in the UK since Roman times, but Julius Caesar and others did not release 50 million of them into the countryside each year, nor did they have the firepower to despatch 13 million per annum.

When I was a lad, 'only' 4 million or so pheasants were released annually, so in six decades the captive-rear-and-release industry has expanded around 12-fold with no regulation of numbers at all. You need more paperwork to release a dozen White-tailed Eagles or Red Kites than several tens of million pheasants.

 The mass release of millions of Common Pheasant each year into the British countryside has negative impacts on various native species (Clive Daelman).


Mass pheasant releases

If 50 million are released, 13 million shot, and then another 50 million released the next year, where do the other 37 million go? Some are killed on roads, some starve, some die of disease and loads are eaten by predators such as Red Foxes. All those deaths must have profound impacts on the predator and carrion-eating populations of birds and mammals, with knock-on impacts on our ecology. I think it's arguable whether Common Pheasant deserves its Category C1 status as a (tickable!) naturalised non-native. If annual releases weren't so eye-wateringly numerous, would Common Pheasant persist, or would it go the way of Lady Amherst's and Golden Pheasants?

While they are alive, Common Pheasants are eating plants, invertebrates and even reptiles, and their droppings dump unwelcome nutrients on sensitive soils. Concerns about these ecological impacts are growing, too.

Wild Justice secured the first restrictions on pheasant releases by making a legal challenge against DEFRA in 2020, where the government caved in just before the court hearing and introduced restrictions on how many pheasants and Red-legged Partridges could be released near sites of high conservation importance. Those restrictions are weak, much too weak, but in spring 2023 DEFRA introduced further measures (too little and too late) requiring releases near sites called Special Protection Areas to be licensed individually. Wild Justice is mounting a legal challenge against these licences as we believe DEFRA wrongly ignored Natural England's formal advice in issuing some of them.

If you are part of the pheasant-shooting industry, you might feel that currently events are conspiring against you. COVID-19 made shoot days unpredictable, Brexit made importing eggs and poults more complicated and expensive, Wild Justice forced some regulations to emerge, and bird flu has made both imports and releases of birds much more limited. Nothing like as many as 50 million pheasants will have been released this year (and my journeys to The Pheasant deliver very noticeably fewer sightings). 

At least you can eat pheasants, you might say. Well, you can, but you risk eating large quantities of lead from fragments of shot in their carcasses – have you read the Food Standards Agency's advice on not eating game meat, particularly if you are pregnant or a toddler?

I'd miss pheasants a bit if they were gone – but I'd get over it. The shooting industry has a long way to go before Common Pheasant is an uncontroversial bird.


  • This column first appeared in the December 2023 edition of Birdwatch. To be the first to read the magazine each month, take out a subscription to Birdwatch or Bird News Ultimate.
Written by: Mark Avery