Chang­ing land­scapes and weather pat­terns as well as pre­da­tion are to blame for Ire­land’s dwin­dling pheas­ant pop­u­la­tion, sug­gests Ru­pert

Sporting Shooter - - Contents -

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

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