CON­SER­VA­TION: Sav­ing the Black-Necked Pheas­ant

Ex­cited to dis­cover a tiny rem­nant of pure black-necks in the far north of Greece, the WPA speak to Emily Dam­ment about how their new con­ser­va­tion project is break­ing down bar­ri­ers

Sporting Shooter - - Contents -

Con­ser­va­tion work is a funny thing. Many of us will be aware that there are groups of ded­i­cated folk work­ing tire­lessly be­hind the scenes to pro­tect, pre­serve and re­vive all man­ner of flora and fauna. But when was the last time we looked up and said, “Hey, you over there with the di­shev­elled hair and mud up to your armpits, well done for giv­ing up your own time and clean­li­ness to make life a bit hap­pier for those wad­ing birds”?

One such lot of self­less peo­ple be­longs to a con­ser­va­tion group called the World Pheas­ant As­so­ci­a­tion (WPA), whose goal is to con­serve gal­li­formes and the habi­tats they de­pend on. For those not fa­mil­iar with the word, gal­li­formes are heavy-bod­ied ground-feed­ing birds – those feath­ered friends that most of us would re­fer to as game birds. The lat­est lucky bird to be on the re­ceiv­ing end of the WPA’s at­ten­tions is the black­necked pheas­ant, a close rel­a­tive to the birds we see to­day in the UK.

The great-great-grand­fa­ther to the pheasants we now shoot for game, they were in­tro­duced a long time ago – some say by the Ro­mans, some think the Nor­mans – and were the dom­i­nant form in Bri­tain un­til the 1860-80s. Around this time, breed­ers and re­leasers be­gan to work with other species, such as the ring-necked pheas­ant, which lays more eggs and rears its chicks bet­ter than its black-necked cousin.

What is thought to be the last re­main­ing in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion of black-necks in Europe re­sides in the delta of the Greek river Nestos. These lit­tle gal­lies are very im­por­tant; most of the pheasants we see are bred from hy­brid stock and re­leased for shoot­ing, or are descen­dants of re­leased birds. Their Greek cousins, on the other hand, are wild and ge­net­i­cally pure, but their num­bers have de­clined sharply over the last 50 years due to habi­tat loss as agri­cul­ture nib­bled away at the edges of their for­est home.

De­spite the fact that any hunt­ing of the species has been pro­hib­ited for decades, the black­necked pheas­ant pop­u­la­tion is down to around 200 birds; in other words, with­out the help of the WPA and their part­ners, black-necks are likely to die out com­pletely. It’s easy to write but dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend; these birds, just like white rhi­nos and Bornean orang­utans, are on the brink of ex­tinc­tion. Now, there’s a scary word that’ll make you sit up and pol­ish your read­ing glasses.

A beau­ti­ful friend­ship

Sav­ing the black-necked pheas­ant is far from a one-man job. It all be­gan with an or­gan­i­sa­tion called KOMATH, or the Hunt­ing Fed­er­a­tion of Mace­do­nia and Thrace, which has been work­ing for the pro­tec­tion of the black-necked pheasants for 15 years.

In col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Forestry Ser­vice of Kavala and the Hunt­ing As­so­ci­a­tion of Chrysopouli, KOMATH (made up of hunters who fund the or­gan­i­sa­tion them­selves) has been mon­i­tor­ing the pop­u­la­tion, try­ing to im­prove the habi­tat, and rais­ing aware­ness of the black-neck’s plight with books and sci­en­tific ar­ti­cles. This alone is a shin­ing ex­am­ple of how hunters give back to na­ture and the en­vi­ron­ment; it’s al­most like a

‘Black-necks are close rel­a­tives to the birds we see to­day – the great­great-grand­fa­thers to the pheasants we shoot for game’

thank you to Mother Na­ture for so gen­er­ously al­low­ing them to en­joy their sport­ing en­deav­ours in her back­yard.

Mean­while, back in Eng­land, the chair­man of the WPA, Richard Car­den, had heard about the black-necked pheasants in Greece when one of the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s French mem­bers gave a talk at the WPA an­nual meet­ing. Be­ing fa­mil­iar with the area in ques­tion from past his­tory- and bird­ing-re­lated hol­i­days, Richard ar­ranged a meet­ing with KOMATH, who con­vinced Richard that the work they were do­ing was im­por­tant.

He then ap­proached Roger Dray­cott of the GWCT who agreed to help eval­u­ate the num­ber of birds in the delta as well as come up with pos­si­ble ideas for habi­tat im­prove­ment. A col­lab­o­ra­tion was born as the three or­gan­i­sa­tions came to­gether to draw up spe­cific man­age­ment plans for the pro­tec­tion and pub­lic­ity of the lucky old black-necks. A six-year op­er­a­tion was agreed, which is be­ing funded by the WPA and KOMATH, and put into ef­fect with sup­port from the WPA in Bri­tain and France, and the GWCT in Bri­tain.

Those lit­tle pheasants have no idea that a joint in­ter­est in their fu­ture well­be­ing has brought to­gether four or­gan­i­sa­tions in three coun­tries.

The big­ger pic­ture

It would be easy to get car­ried away with this in­spir­ing story, and be un­der the im­pres­sion that one day soon black-necked pheasants will be roam­ing the coun­try­side in un­count­able num­bers, but in re­al­ity the aims of the project are cur­rently far more hum­ble.

“The size of the pop­u­la­tion at the mo­ment is per­ilously small, at around 200 birds,” said Richard. “If we achieve noth­ing more than to shore-up this po­si­tion, it will be worth­while.

“It’s too early to say but we’re hop­ing that with the habi­tat im­prove­ment work and care­ful pro­tec­tion around the edges of this area, which is car­ried out by skilled KOMATH em­ploy­ees, the num­ber can be slowly in­creased so that we do ac­tu­ally achieve an in­crease in pop­u­la­tion.” There is also a big­ger pic­ture to take into ac­count. Con­trary to the com­mon per­cep­tion of Europe as a hunters’ par­adise, at­ti­tudes of the Greek public and govern­ment to­wards hunt­ing are frosty at best. “It’s quite a new idea to the Greeks that shoot­ing and con­ser­va­tion can go hand-in-hand, but we are chang­ing that through this project,” says Richard. “It’s im­por­tant to change those at­ti­tudes be­cause we need the co­op­er­a­tion of one or two govern­ment agen­cies to get the work done. The forestry ser­vice, for ex­am­ple, who man­age the wood­land in the area we are con­cen­trat­ing on have been un­co­op­er­a­tive with our hunter part­ners un­til now, but that is chang­ing as they be­gin to see that here is a hunters’ or­gan­i­sa­tion that is work­ing to pro­tect a bird that they can’t ac­tu­ally shoot.

“We’re get­ting more co­op­er­a­tion from the agen­cies that have to give per­mis­sion for ground­work to be done, and the fact that we are bring­ing in recog­ni­tion from out­side the coun­try is al­ready mak­ing peo­ple more aware of the is­sue. Peo­ple take it more se­ri­ously and are be­com­ing more re­cep­tive to the idea that hunters are also ca­pa­ble of do­ing good work for con­ser­va­tion.”

So, sim­ply be­cause a small group of peo­ple cared enough about the black-necks’ plight to take ac­tion, a rip­ple ef­fect has now been set in mo­tion which has the po­ten­tial to change an or­gan­i­sa­tion’s at­ti­tude to­wards hunt­ing – what bet­ter way to il­lus­trate the power of con­ser­va­tion?

The fact that the project has been funded mainly by do­na­tions from shoot­ers is a pos­i­tive that we can be truly proud of. Words can only go so far, but pos­i­tive ac­tions have the power to truly im­ple­ment change for the bet­ter.

It is es­ti­mated that only 100-250 pure black-necked pheasants sur­vive in the wild

Find out more about the WPA and con­sider giv­ing back to na­ture by do­nat­ing to the cause at www.pheas­ant.org.uk/ pay­ments Open­ing the veg­e­ta­tion on the for­est edge was rec­om­mended to im­prove the pheasants’ habi­tat

Richard Car­den, Roger Dray­cott and the KOMATH chair­man are work­ing to­gether

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