I was thrilled to find a brood of wild pheasants on the Chayne on Saturday morning – in fact, the discovery almost made my week. Four strong poults wandered cautiously away through the rushes as I came through the farm gate, and I had a chance to watch them browsing in the grass with a wise and canny consciousness that is so often missing in hand-reared birds. The cocks were beginning to colour up, with dark crowns and the first few mis-matched feathers beginning to appear on their shoulders and backs – they are probably a late clutch, but it always provides reassurance that breeding is possible when the conditions are right. As they vanished into a swirl of rain, hawkbit and dead thistles, I felt a surge of satisfaction.
I’m no great fan of pheasants. I’m pretty sure that some of the intensive, short-term shoot management (of pheasants and red-legged partridges) in some parts of the UK is unsustainable, and while the relationship between blackgame and pheasants is relatively obscure, I’m glad that there aren’t any major commercial pheasant shooting operations in the area.
Wild pheasants are very special, but they are still nowhere near as exciting as grouse, blackgame or grey partridges. For me, the crux of sport is a carefully managed surplus of truly wild birds, and although pheasants will never be wholly “native”, there is far more to be said in favour of birds which have been born and reared in the countryside than those which are churned out by game farms. I learnt a great deal about this distinction between “wild” and “reared” when breeding partridges a few years ago, and I’m still convinced that the emphasis in shooting should be weighted on quality rather than quantity.
But when you remember how unreliable and inefficient most pheasants are when it comes to breeding, the fact that these four wild-bred birds exist at all confirms that (unlike almost everyone else) we’ve had a good summer in Galloway and the marginal hill-ground habitats are not as knackered as they sometimes seem. These pheasants choose almost exactly the same nesting and brood-rearing habitat as black grouse on my ground, so it is encouraging to find further evidence that the system does work.
In truth, productivity in these habitats is generally pretty good in Galloway, and the cycle only collapses during the winter. Year after year, September is filled with promise and potential for many ground-nesting birds. By April, we’re back to square one again, if we’re lucky.