Alan Pearson finds the history of the pheasant in the British Isles might go further back than you think – and how it came to such prominence as sporting quarry.
Shooting is a subject that we don’t always consider, we tend to just do it, but where did it all begin? I was recently asked to do a paper for the British Veterinary Poultry Association on Hatching in the Game Industry, but there were so many invited experts from all over the world that I bottled out and looked at the history instead. There was very little information available about the history of the actual hatching practices in our industry, but I did find out a huge amount about the history of the pheasant, which was both interesting and informative, so I decided to share it with you as we prepare for the coming season.
It is well known that the pheasant originated in China, and records for that go back thousands of years, but when did the pheasant arrive in England’s green and pleasant land? Most people would usually say it was a Norman import, coming with the 11th century invasion, 1066 and all that; but archives reveal a mention of pheasants in a document in 1056, 10 years before the Norman invasion. The Romans are known to have used pheasant as food, but they have left no documents or records that indicate having them in the UK. However, the Romans are the most likely to have introduced them.
In the reign of Henry I the Abbot of Amesbury received a licence to kill hares and pheasants in August 1100, while Sir Thomas a Beckett, on the day of his martyrdom in 1170, dined on pheasant and enjoyed it. At the enthronement of the Archbishop of York in the reign of Edward IV, 200 pheasant were supplied, and also listed on the menu were redshanks, bitterns, partridge, peacocks and widgeon.
The bird has always been considered valuable, and the following are examples from the archives. In 1539 Henry VIII issued a protection order on pheasants, partridge and herons on his Hampstead Estate, and a fine of £10 was to be imposed. A fine for taking any pheasant by night was £1 (£10 was a year’s wages then). A record exists from 1532 that records the payment of 12 pence per bird to a pheasant (fesaut) breeder. This is the earliest record of birds being ‘kept’ or bred. Several other records of pheasant breeder are recorded from this time onwards, but there are no records of how the birds were kept and bred, or whether eggs were simply taken from wild nests and incubated under broody hens and the hatched birds reared. These records are from English archives – as to the rest of the UK, the pheasant is first mentioned in Ireland in 1589, Scotland’s first recorded pheasant was in 1594, but in the Highlands it is not recorded until 1821. No historical records have been found for Wales.
The species of bird commonly called the pheasant is distinguished by its 18 tail feathers, of which the middle two are longer. These long feathers and can reach up to 1.2 metres in the Reeves, while the Silver and Golden pheasants are from a different group. The pheasant is a forest or woodland-edge dweller, and uses the cover of the wood and the pasture for grazing. It is less comfortable in flat, exposed areas or mountains. It is an omnivorous bird and is valuable to agriculture as it can eat a large numbers of injurious insects. An entry in ‘The Field’ in 1921 records a gamekeeper opening the crop of a pheasant to find 726 grubs, one acorn, one snail, nine berries and three grains of wheat, and an 1821 document records a pheasant crop containing an entire slow worm and another containing six immature adders. There were those who still wonder whether animal protein should be a part of our birds’ diets, and this may be the evidence in support of that argument.
So what properties do pheasant have that make it so attractive? Well it had obviously been long recognised as a great table bird from the records of medieval feasts, but why is it such a good hunting bird? Firstly it is such a strong flyer – we have the following from the records; ‘The pheasant is a strong, quick, short-distance flier with primary and secondary feathers of almost equal length and well developed breast muscles. Its wings are short and strong.’ An observed flight across a four-mile stretch of the Humber estuary is recorded in 1867 and is the longest recorded. In 1897 Colonel Tuberville of Glamorgan had a pheasant fly into his window and land four feet into the room.
Secondly, it is an athlete – ‘The Pheasant has strong stubby legs which allows it to run on the ground at considerable speed.’
It is a combination of these two properties that originally led to its ‘selection’ as a preferred hunting bird. It was discovered that the bird would rather run than fly in many cases, but would always fly home in times of danger. So the trick was, and obviously still is, to feed it away from it’s roost and then entice it to go home, preferably by flying (over some strategically placed guns). While we are able to train the birds to some extent, I was talking to some friends who informed me that birds on several shoots had wandered away from the keeper’s feed because of the glut of natural food following the good summer, and it reminded me that we are always dealing with a wild species in captivity. It also brought to mind the words of Charles Waterton in 1856, when referring to the pheasant, he said, ‘‘Notwithstanding the proximity to the domestic fowl it has within it that which baffles all attempts to render it’s domestication complete.”
People in the late 19th century started to think how they could persuade the pheasant away from ‘home’ so when ‘put-up’ he would fly home. Beating was developed – beaters would drive the pheasants gently out of the woods for, say, 100 – 200 yards, and then ‘put them up’ making them fly home over the waiting guns. Prior to WWI on large country estates, the driving techniques improved and numbers of birds put out increased. It was realised that the pheasant was not only a good bird for the kitchen but, if managed well, was an excellent sport bird and could provide challenging shooting. But by the earliest 20th century numbers on the drive meant shooting parties were almost mass murder; King George V shot over a thousand pheasants out of a total bag of 3,937 over a six-day period in December 1913. Then it all stopped. In 1914 there was no shooting, no keeping, no breeding. Numbers of wild birds increased. The great war taught many things, but moderation was a great lesson.
The shooting industry started again after 1918, and there was a slow and gradual recovery. The modern game hatcheries as we have them today started in the early 1960s. We are an extremely diverse industry from keepers still hatching pheasant eggs under broody hens to the mega-hatcheries producing multiple millions of birds in a 16-week season and I hope this has been an interesting insight into our origins, whichever category you fall into.