Girton Birdwatch - April 2009
The beginning of March was a good time to be wandering the district; the sun was shining and birds were appearing from everywhere. It was almost impossible not to see a Buzzard: five or six were in the skies over Oakington; three over Girton and, a little further afield, eleven circled together over Fowlmere. As I walked across the fields to Histon two flapped and glided towards me from the direction of the re-cycling centre, while several Skylarks soared noisily to meet them. Heading back to Girton a flock of about ten Yellowhammer hedgehopped along the Beck Brook, to be joined by five or six Reed Bunting. Cetti's Warbler and Chiffchaff have been heard singing locally, while the first Sand Martins have also arrived.
I was musing about the plans to introduce Sea Eagles to the East Coast (and European beavers to other locations), and the controversy which this has aroused, when my thoughts turned to another introduced species, with which we are all probably familiar but which is either ignored by birders or treated with mild contempt: the Pheasant. This dramatically beautiful and colourful bird, which occasionally enters our gardens, and/or stalks along our fences adjoining open farmland, still has the capacity to astonish when seen close up. No one knows for sure how long these birds have been with us, although most authorities agree that they originated in China. Cocker and Mabey seem to accept that the Greeks brought pheasants to Europe and that the Romans introduced them to Britain, but reliable evidence in support of these claims appears to be lacking. Apparently the first written evidence placing Pheasants in this country refers to those eaten at Waltham Abbey just prior to the Battle of Hastings, and speculation has it that William the Conqueror's Sicilian connections probably led to the bird's increased importation. They were certainly well-established by the Middle Ages but remained an expensive table item until at least the seventeenth century when the rise of the game-keeper and organised shoots led to them becoming almost as commonplace as they are today.
The arrival of the Pheasant and its increasing popularity had great consequences - good and bad - for the British countryside and for social relations within it. Woods that might have been grubbed up were retained by gamekeepers as cover for the birds, as was the coppicing so beneficial to much woodland wildlife. Nowadays pheasant rearing - which culminates in a huge annual slaughter - has the merit of providing an alternative 'crop' for farmers while slowing the move towards 'prairie' farming. However, as Oliver Rackham, himself a beneficiary of prairie farming has put it, gamekeeping 'more than any other activity up to that time … corrupted country life and produced ill-feeling between landowners and other folk'. Woods were closed off to the common people - unlike on the Continent where ancient woodlands were more likely to remain part of everyones's heritage - and poachers were executed or transported or fell victim to the shark-jawed mantraps introduced to protect the birds. Many birds and animals were also badly affected. Although foxes and crows, predators on ground-nesting birds, were kept under control by gamekeepers so, too, were birds thought to constitute the merest threat to the pheasant and its chicks, and species such as the Buzzard, Red Kite, Peregrine and Raven were ruthlessly persecuted and are only now recovering. The lengths to which some keepers were prepared to go have been well-documented, although we may have to take with a pinch of salt the claim made, or at least supported by, W.H. Hudson that one keeper 'shot all the nightingales because their singing kept the pheasants awake at night'.
The Common Pheasant is not the only 'British' pheasant; it has two 'cousins': the Golden and the Lady Amherst's pheasant. It is difficult to describe these two birds - and description is necessary as they are so seldom see - because they are both gorgeously plumaged, extraordinarily beautiful birds. The Golden Pheasant, which was accepted onto the British list in 1971, is multi-coloured with a golden crest covering most of its head, set off by a black-barred, orange ruff. Its lower back and rump is yellow, while its underparts are scarlet. Its wings are blue and brown and its very long tail is cinnamon with black marbling. One would imagine that such a bird would stick out like a sore thumb amidst the sombre tones of the British countryside, but this is an intensely shy bird which hides in thick deciduous scrub or dense conifer plantations. There is a colony on Tresco, Isles of Scilly, but despite our many visits my wife and I have never seen one. Closer to home they are to be found in the Breckland of Suffolk and Norfolk, the South Downs of Hampshire and Sussex, and the Galloway Forest Park, but recent censuses appear to indicate a steady decline in all three areas. The Breckland population, which apparently originated with birds introduced to the Elveden estate near Thetford, is still the largest and best known.
Lady Amherst's pheasant is, impossible though this may appear, even more exquisitely beautiful than its close relative. The multi-coloured male sports a green crown with a red plume. It, too, has a ruff: white with black scalloping. Its throat is black, its breast, back and scapulars (upper wing feathers) green, and its belly, white. Its rump is golden and the feathers covering the black-barred, very long tail, are red. Ironically, you are more likely to have seen this than the Golden Pheasant, as a small colony - presumably captive (?) - is/was to be found at Anglesey Abbey. It is equally shy. The rather 'sniffy' attitude of the British ornithological establishment towards introductions is encapsulated by both Golden and Lady Amherst's pheasants for very little is known about their habits in the wild, except that they are in serious decline. The behaviour and conservation requirements of the Lady Amherst's pheasant have been shamefully ignored for more than a century, despite the fact that its credentials as a 'British' bird are as compelling as, say, the Little Owl which is widely accepted now as 'ours' and about which so much is known, thanks, in no small measure, to the work of Alice Hibbert-Ware, one time resident of Girton.