NEXT Monday is November 1 and it will be a noisy day in the countryside.
The night-time barrage of Halloween fireworks will be followed by a daytime barrage of shotgun fire because November 1 is the opening day of the pheasant shooting season.
The pheasant is one of a small number of bird species that everyone recognises. I suppose some people might be confused by the smaller and drabber female bird, but a cock pheasant with its long tail and brightly coloured plumage is unmistakable. However, this common countryside bird is not an Irish native.
It seems as though the first pheasants were seen in Ireland around 1580. This is later than in Britain or other bits of Europe that were part of the Roman Empire. They were brought to this country by Norman knights to decorate the grounds of their castles and provide feasts. They shared the castle grounds with other exotic fowl such as peacocks, guinea fowl and mute swans. But they were not originally a hunting quarry because in the 1580s the sporting shotgun had not been invented.
They are an Asian species with a native range from western China and Taiwan eastwards to the Caucasus Mountains. There is a river called the Rioni that rises in the Caucasus and flows westwards through Georgia to the Black Sea. The Ancient Greeks called this river the Phasis which gives us the Latin Phasianus and the English pheasant. It seems as though the valley of this river marks the westernmost extremity of the pheasant’s native range and was probably the source of the first Irish pheasants.
The Caucasian sub-species of the pheasant does not have a white ring round the neck of the male bird. Most modern Irish pheasants do have this neck ring and are descended from later stock sourced from further east, probably from China.
Most pheasants in our countryside are complex hybrids descended from artificially reared stock. In addition, the common pheasant has been crossed with another species, the Japanese green pheasant, which also lacks a white neck ring.
Around 1830 the sporting shotgun developed to a stage where it could reliably bring down birds in flight. Up until then most game birds had been stalked and shot on the ground. At the same time the owners of sporting estates in Britain and Ireland agreed that the most satisfying bird to shoot in the air was a high, fast pheasant. The cruising speed of a pheasant in flight is 40 to 60 kilometres an hour but if it’s frightened and flushed by dogs or beaters it can reach 90 kph.
The sport of driven pheasant shooting on the big estates grew rapidly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Its popularity was increased by royal patronage. King George V of England shot more than 1,000 birds on one day in 1913 – still an all-time record.
Some pheasants are still reared by gamekeepers in Ireland but naturalised pheasants also exist in self-sustaining populations in suitable parts of our countryside, though they can not survive in this way in intensive farmland. This ‘wild’ population is augmented by birds bred on game farms and released by gun clubs.
Research shows that these artificially-reared birds, even if they escape being shot, seldom survive for very long in the wild.
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