NOTES FROM IRELAND
Changing landscapes and weather patterns as well as predation are to blame for Ireland’s dwindling pheasant population, suggests Rupert
Once the staple diet of many an Irish shooter, the noble pheasant seems to be dwindling at an alarming rate. Year after year I hear shooters the length and breath of this isle of ours complain about its decline. Why is this? To be honest I don’t know the answer but I’m pretty sure it’s not just one factor, but rather a host of them. The following are some to be considered...
Over the past 30 years or so our landscape has changed considerably. Where once there were several small fields, there is now one; and not only have hedgerows been taken away, the ones that remain are but a shadow of former glories. In some instances whole farms, which once were a patchwork of fields of various sizes, are now condensed into one large field, separated only by some strands of wire. Coupled with this we have the silage harvester, a beast of a machine which gobbles up young pheasants with alarming regularity. Large herds of cows, which once were a novelty, are now the norm. As we all know, large tracts of dairy land holds little or no value for many species, pheasants included. Gone also are turnip and potato gardens, once a regular feature of most Irish holdings. The decline of the beet industry here is also a contributing factor. No longer do we have large fields of weedy sugar beet which were as good as any cover crop and particularly useful for younger birds as they reached maturity.
Vermin control will always be a contributing factor, particularly nowadays in our fast-moving environment. Many shooters in clubs around the country simply don’t have the time to get out as much as is required. Those that do are fighting an uphill battle as magpie and grey crow numbers are rising year on year. As with most clubs you will find that it is the usual few that do all the work, vermin control included. This said, it is usually the ones that don’t pull their weight during the off season that moan about the lack of birds later in the year. It is up to all shooters to do their bit, even if this means just patrolling a few fields either side of you. Fox numbers are at their highest for many a year, and it is not unusual to see several in one paddock at night. I, for one, love to see our many birds of prey floating in the skies above. Unfortunately, this welcome sight comes with a price. Sparrowhawks in particular have never been more abundant, as
they sweep the hedgerows in
Our changing climate is certainly not pleasant for the pheasant. This galliforme thrives in the mild weather, but severe cold and wet conditions can cause numbers to plummet, particularly during the nesting period.
‘I love to see our many birds of prey floating in the skies above. Unfortunately, this welcome sight comes with a price’
search of prey. I remember many moons ago a female of said species that regularly dined at a release pen of mine. Buzzards are a major talking point nowadays. The rise in their numbers over the past 10 years is truly staggering. Stories about their thieving capacities abound and are starting to get legs, each better than the one before. I am not convinced. They are carrion feeders by nature and the jury is out on how much damage they actually do. This said, however, I do believe that any bird of prey will take the easy option if offered, and in this respect, pheasant pens and duck release ponds will always be a target.
From my personal point of view one of the most discouraging factors where pheasants are concerned is the lack of hen birds on the ground. Years ago while out shooting one could meet, without exaggeration, 10 or 12 hens to every cock bird. Alas, this is not the case any more. On the opening morning this season we flushed upwards of a dozen cock birds, but only two hens. Why the decrease in hen bird numbers? We don’t shoot hens down South so one would think that they would be far more abundant than cock birds. Are they getting predated far more while sitting on eggs? I read with interest many moons ago an article regarding the breeding success of released hen birds. Basically, in year one only a minute percentage of birds released the previous year breed successfully. Therefore, releasing large numbers of hen birds, although it may help, is not the solution.
One factor which we cannot change is the weather. Wetter winter and spring months seem to be the norm now rather than the exception. Pheasant chicks are notoriously susceptible to both cold and wet conditions.
So, what can be done? Personally, I think vermin control is key to any thriving population. Magpie, grey crow and fox populations have to be brought back to acceptable levels. I think the greater need for fodder crops, particularly hay and silage, due to the large increases in herd numbers over the past few years is at the root of the problem. Farm incentive schemes, which are starting to get more biodiversity-friendly, still have a long way to go.
We are never going to have the population of birds on the ground that we had 30 years ago. Changing times require changing attitudes, and on this note it is the responsibility of all game shooters, not just the usual few, to do their bit. If you want birds on the ground you have to be prepared to make an effort early in the year. As with most things in life, you reap what you sow.
Large fields, rather than a patchwork of small ones with hedgerows between, provide little shelter for birds
Birds of prey mostly feed on carrion, but will target vulnerable gambebirds given the chance