Category Archive 'Ringnecked Pheasant'

03 Nov 2019

Clarkson Takes on Anti-Hunters With Left-Wing Faces

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Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson has taken his millions and done what wealthy Brits always do: Move to the country to enjoy rural life and sports.

And, like any good country squire, Jeremy has taken up Shooting Driven Game.

His column is behind a paywall in the Sunday Times:

I was up early the other day because I was keen to write about the Britannia Hotels group’s incredible achievement of being voted the UK’s worst chain for the seventh year running. Imagine. You’re told you’re rubbish once and then you keep on being rubbish for six straight years. I wanted to comment about such an extraordinary level of commitment to slack-jawed slovenliness.

But then I noticed that the survey had been done by Which?, an organisation that is really only interested in reaching adenoidal people in action trousers and sandals who contribute to TripAdvisor and run the neighbourhood watch scheme. As a general rule, I’ve always reckoned that if something does badly in Which?, it’s probably pretty good.

As I sat, deciding which side to take in the great hotel debate, I was distracted by an annoying man on Radio 4’s Farming Today show. He was from the airborne wing of the Labour Party — also known as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Birds — and he was talking about how he thought shooting game birds might be a bad thing.

The RSPB has always been prevented by its royal charter from campaigning against the shooting industry — Mrs Queen likes to strangle a pheasant or two at Christmas time, as we know — but it has worked out that it can comment if it reckons shooting is done by rich bastards in Range Rovers.

Now, the columnist Charles Moore said recently that the actress Olivia Colman had a “left-wing face”. I won’t comment on that, but I will say that Martin Harper, the man the RSPB sent to Radio 4, had a left-wing voice. Chris Packham has both a left-wing voice and a left-wing face, and he wants us all to stop using fly spray.

Anyway, Martin reckoned that if you release 50m non-native game birds into the British countryside every year, it’s bound to have an effect. When pressed by the interviewer for a specific effect, he said: “Er, climate change.” That was lucky for the Britannia Hotels chain, because I immediately abandoned my original plan and decided to write about shooting instead.

The first thing I did when I started a small shoot was plant several acres of so-called cover crops. Maize, sunflowers and something called kale, which can be eaten by humans if they are very deranged. These crops provide warmth, food and a place to hide from Johnny Fox, not just for my pheasants but a whole squadron of other birds too.

We keep reading about how endangered the yellowhammer is these days; well, not on my farm it isn’t. Since I started my shoot, the skies are black with them. And goldcrests. And wrens. And skylarks. The dawn chorus used to be nothing but the occasional squawk of a murderous crow, whereas now it’s positively philharmonic.

Research has shown that if you run through a field of crops planted by a shootist, you are 340 times more likely to encounter a songbird than if you do a Theresa May and run through a field of grass.

So, Martin, if the RSPB does manage to ban shooting, then, yes, you will be championed as a class hero throughout the vegan strongholds of Islington and Shoreditch, but you will also be responsible for the deaths of a million linnets. Which, as far as I know, isn’t why the RSPB was founded.

And then there are the woods, where the pheasants are held until they are old enough to forage on their own. Woods are beautiful and still. They’re places to shelter from the endless drone of light-aircraft enthusiasts. Mine are full of roe deer and muntjac and squirrels and badgers, and at this time of year there are many mushrooms too. I love to spend an evening down there as the leaves turn golden, giggling. Everyone likes woods, except if you are in a horror film.

But they generate no income. So if shooting were banned, I’d have to get Brazilian on their arses and turn them into farmland. Is that what you want, Martin? Because I fear that would create a damn sight more climate change than my Range Rover.

Of course, I’m well aware that some people might bridle at the sight and sound of eight hedge-fund managers in tweed shorts, braying their way through a pint of sloe gin while brandishing a pair of £20,000 shotguns, but what good comes from making them take up golf instead?

There are many hobbies that inflict far more pain and misery on others: light aircraft — I’m not giving up on that — the violin, motorcycling, strimming, morris dancing and so on, so why pick on one that’s good for nature and good for the way the countryside looks?

Pointedly, it’s good for birds too. Not just songbirds, but the kind of stuff that makes kids point at the sky and squeak with joy. Birds of prey. Since I started a shoot, I have seen a huge increase in the number of kestrels and buzzards over my farm. I even think I spotted a peregrine falcon the other day, and that made my heart soar.

Was it here because it likes eating my pheasants and partridges? There’s some debate about that, but the truth is I don’t really care if it does take a few. Because I like having it around.

Clarkson is right in saying that the Ringneck pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) is not native to Britain, but they were actually introduced by Julius Caesar a very long time ago, you’d think they’d have been given naturalized citizenship by now.

20 May 2011

The Vanished Wild Bobwhite

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William Herman Schmedtgen, Quail Shooting in Louisiana, 1897

A couple of generations ago, coveys of wild bobwhite quail could be found by hunters from Florida as far north as Southern New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Today, quail hunting exists only for pen-raised, released birds on pay-for-shooting preserves and plantations.

What happened to wild quail? Where did they all go?

The New York Times discusses the problem and advances a theory.

Quail hunting has been both aristocratic and egalitarian. It is a sport of Southern plantation gentry who ride walking horses with bespoke double guns in their scabbards and have pedigreed pointing dogs racing across the fields before them. It is also the sport of the farm kid armed with a dad’s old shotgun and a rangy mutt for a hunting companion. Both types of hunters have equally satisfying hunts, but these days social standing does not matter. Everyone is quail-poor. Bobwhite quail are one of the most studied wildlife species in the United States, yet conservationists have yet to halt the declining populations.

Biologists agree that overhunting is not the issue. Quail are prolific breeders but have a short lifespan. Hunting seasons could be eliminated and still approximately 90 percent of the quail would be dead within the year. Other predators, like raptors, coyotes or raccoons, are also not the reason for their decline, although many hunters point the finger at them.

Don McKenzie is in charge of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, a team of 25 state fish and wildlife agencies and conservation groups. The goal of the group, formed in 2002, is to get wild quail populations to what they were in 1980.

It is one of the most difficult large-scale wildlife restoration projects. Canada geese, whitetail deer and wild turkeys — all at one time low in numbers — have become so populous that they spill into the suburbs, but bringing back bobwhite populations is a struggling enterprise.

“One of the difficult parts of quail restoration is we have to restore suitable habitat at a landscape scale,” McKenzie said. “When you compare that with deer and turkey restoration, the habitat was already suitable. It was a matter of catching remaining wild animals in places where they were and moving them to places where they weren’t and protecting them until they took care of themselves. It’s still a challenge, but nothing compared to what we face now with bobwhites.”

The reason restoring bobwhite quail is so difficult is because it involves changing the nation’s manipulated rural landscape. According to McKenzie, exotic fescue, Bahia grass and Bermuda grass took hold across the United States in the 1940s. These carpetlike grasses were planted to promote better cattle grazing and edged out the native warm-season grasses that are conducive to good quail habitat. The native grasses grow in clumps, which allow the quail to hide, move and forage and are essential to their survival.

With pastures covered with invasive exotic grasses, the quail found cover along brushy fencerows and field edges, but by the 1970s modern agricultural practices that maximized every inch of soil devoured these small sanctuaries and left quail with few hideouts.

Wildlife biologists have known about this connection between warm-season grasses and quail habitat, and many landowners have tried to create an oasis for quail on their property by planting a paradise of native plants. Yet the quail population never reached the old numbers.

“Resident game bird conservation professionals have been telling landowners this for 50 years: all you need to do is some small-scale stuff on your place and you’ll have birds and everything will be fine,” McKenzie said. “Well, after 50 years of doing that, it certainly doesn’t work.”

The problem is that the islands of prime quail habitat — restored or naturally occurring — are not connected to one another to create larger plots of good habitat where quail have greater odds of survival.

“We have to come up with bigger pieces of landscape that are managed in common, and have connections with other pieces of well-managed landscape where there are sustainable populations of birds,” McKenzie said. “We must make it happen by the millions of acres instead of by the tens of acres.”

The problem is not restricted to bobwhite quail. The Times overlooks the fact that same thing has happened to the ringnecked pheasant in the Eastern United States.

Up to the 1960s, the Asiatic pheasant had been successfully naturalized for many decades, and wild pheasant populations existed from Maryland and Virginia all the way up to Southern New England.

As with the bobwhite quail, one finds today everywhere in the East, the wild pheasant population has been completely eliminated. The State of Pennsylvania stocks thousands of pen-raised pheasants annually, and it makes no difference. Within weeks, the birds are gone.

I think the Time’s authorities are correct that edge-to-edge farming, encouraged by the Department of Agriculture’s experts, had something to do with all of this, and the altered system of grasses theory has some plausibility, but I think there may be more to it than that. I don’t see how the complete protection of raptors cannot be playing a role. And, beyond that, experience shows that populations of wild birds and animals do change dramatically and unpredictably.

Back before WWII, Canada geese were becoming very scarce and some subspecies were even believed to be nearing extinction. The wood duck was rare, and had been removed from the bag list of huntable species. In those days, the prime hunting ducks were black ducks in the Northeast, and canvasbacks in the Chesapeake.

Today, Canada geese are a public nuisance. They’ve stopped migrating. Their population has exploded, and the once less common larger subspecies is a standard inhabitant of malls, office complexes, and parks. Wood ducks are now common and have the largest bag limit, and it is unusual to ever get a shot at a black duck or a canvasback.

I don’t think the experts have a good explanation for all the wildlife population changes which occur over time.


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