THROUGH the late summer and autumn a cock pheasant has been feeding in the field outside my study. He’s a big bird with a long tail and fairly elderly, writes Dick Warner.
However, the pheasant-shooting season opened a couple of weeks ago and I haven’t seen him since. I did hear shots and it’s possible he’s been killed. It’s also possible he’s old and wise enough to lie low until things cool down. It may be lucky for pheasants that the shooting season opens the day after Halloween — the fireworks give them a little advance warning of what is to come.
Pheasants, of course, are not native Irish birds although they’re well naturalised all around the country and every year their numbers are augmented by birds reared on game farms and released by shooting people. They come from temperate parts of Asia, all across the continent from the Black Sea in the west to the Japanese archipelago in the east.
The wild populations are interrupted by mountain ranges and deserts and have developed into a number of sub-species. There has also been centuries of captive breeding involving hybrids between the sub-species so nowadays the genetic make-up of Irish pheasants is really too complicated to decipher.
The name pheasant is derived from Phasis which in ancient times was an important trading port on the Black Sea — it’s now the modern port city of Poti in western Georgia. It’s probable that Greek or Phoenician traders brought the first pheasants to Europe from this port over two millennia ago.
They were certainly very popular with the Romans, more as a food item and an ornamental bird than as a sporting quarry, and it seem likely that it was the Romans who first brought them to Britain. There are certainly written records referring to pheasants in pre-Norman England.
We don’t know when the first pheasants arrived in Ireland but they were almost certainly brought in by the Normans. The earliest reference we have is from the 1590s but it comments on how widespread the birds were in Irish forests at the time so we can assume they were well established by then and the first introductions were much earlier.
There were also many later introductions of different races of pheasant. The original Georgian pheasants didn’t have a white neck- ring but ring-necked pheasants from China were introduced to Britain in 1768. The people who brought them in tended to be landed gentry with titles and estates in Britain and Ireland so the new imports reached here.
This upsurge in interest in pheasants was driven by the development of sporting shotguns capable of taking down birds in flight and the beginning of the modern sport of wing shooting. Pheasants were easy to breed and an ideal target for the new sport.
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