Ornithologists do not recognise the pheasant as a UK bird, although it has the most beautiful plumage of any bird resident in these Isles. It was an Asian bird, finally domesticated and brought to Britain by the Romans adding to their dietary requirements whilst away from Italy. When the Romans left, they seem to have taken the bird with them, as it does not appear in records here until the 1200s.
It will not be long before 20 million pheasant are released as game for the waiting, evenly spaced shooters, on various specially chosen pieces of land around the UK. These pheasants have been reared and fed up all year for the purpose of being shot by shooters who hope to get their money’s worth out of the day’s shoot. They don’t want the birds to be too fat so they will not rise into the skies above them. They don’t want them to be so unused to threats through careful rearing that they don’t even try to take evasive action. But, rearing this bird to be shot since the mid 1800s does encourage a type of bird which has lost its initiative to forage or think for itself. Never mind. There is big money to be made providing rural employment all year leading to the short shooting season.
When I first arrived here in the Scottish Borders I thrilled to the sight of a pheasant flying and pecking on the fell outside the window of the cottage. We often watched the young pheasants running ahead of us up the road near a small wood, their amusing gait making us laugh as they eventually ran at speed off onto the grass. We did not know they were there simply because the wood nearby was where they were being especially reared. Similarly, the red legged partridge would delight us as around 20 would appear suddenly outside the window, their markings incredibly beautiful too. But we soon learned they were being reared also for the shooting season.
And the carrion crow. Such an intelligent bird, fascinating to watch as they pick up a snail and break its shell on a fence just as I smash the shell on a nut, providing a tasty meal. We loved to watch them dedicatedly building their nest in the ash tree by the cottage. Their young hatched out and the parents worked so hard feeding their couple of chicks. One balmy evening they were beginning to fledge, all basking on the high branches, testing the pre-flight conditions with parents encouragingly sitting close by. Then a shooter drove up, took aim, and blasted the crow family out of their nest, killing one juvenile which was in the nest and winging a parent. The other juvenile flew earlier than it had anticipated. Crows are considered ‘vermin’ like the feral pigeons, and can be shot all year round. We did not expect this family to be shot as we sat in our garden sharing the pleasant evening with them.
The rural economy justifies these activities as high income deriving sports and locals will say ‘aye bin’ – meaning ‘it’s always been that way’. No-one likes their income threatened, but now climate change is doing the threatening as less birds survive the rearing period during extreme weather. What will the people replace this ‘sport’ with for the future? Or will they continue to think maybe next year will be better, when we now know climate change has given all the warnings that things can only get worse.