This post is by Guy Shrubsole.
Go for a drive down a country lane and you’re almost certain to encounter a pheasant, most likely as it leaps, kamikaze-style, into the path of the oncoming car. Pheasants are a non-native species in Britain, introduced for shooting; and though we tend to think of them as a harmless (if rather stupid) species, their numbers are now vast – a staggering 35 million are released in the UK every year (20 million of which are in England, as we’ll later see). A recent study showed the biomass of introduced pheasants outweighed the biomass of all wild bird species in the UK. So who’s releasing all these pheasants? What’s the ecological impact of doing so? And who owns some of the estates responsible? Who Owns England decided to investigate.
The ecological impact of pheasant releases
To be clear from the outset: the science on pheasant releases is complex, and doesn’t cut all one way. Many pheasant shooting estates invest in planting cover crops for pheasants that also provide food for wild bird populations. Figures from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) suggest that shooting estates have planted thousands of acres of woodland copses and hedgerows for pheasants to shelter in – creating lots of space for other wildlife in the process.
Nevertheless, the sheer scale of the pheasant population nowadays gives many conservationists cause for concern – as does the rate of population increase. GWCT data shows a nine-fold increase in pheasant releases since the 1960s, whilst the BTO’s Breeding Bird Survey shows a nearly 50% increase in the breeding population of feral pheasants over the same period:
And there is increasing evidence that this weight of pheasant numbers is having negative ecological impacts – much of it gathered by the GWCT themselves: with high densities of pheasants shown to alter the structure of hedgerows, cause significant changes in invertebrate communities, and have long-term negative impacts on woodland species diversity and structure. This begs more questions: what’s this outsize population of pheasants doing to other parts of the food chain? What’s the impact been on predator populations? Is there any link between the vast increase in pheasant numbers since the late 1960s and the 56% decline in farmland birds observed since 1970? Part of the problem in answering such questions is the lack of granular data: we just haven’t known where the largest releases of pheasants have been taking place, and which estates are likely doing so. Until now, that is.
Here be pheasants
Pheasants have a truly bizarre legal status: when they’re reared by estates, they’re classed as livestock; when they’re released for shooting, they magically become wild birds. Pheasants’ classification as livestock grants shooting estates some tax benefits and exempts them from certain planning controls; but it also means they must register the number of pheasants they are rearing with the government.
This information used to be collected by the former Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA), but the data they published on gamebird numbers between 2011-2013 was national level only, and combined figures for partridges and pheasants. However, their annual reports also contain some intriguing ‘heatmaps’ showing gamebird densities, which start to give clues as to where the biggest shooting estates might be – this one is from 2013:
But how to get at this more detailed data? In 2014, AHVLA became the Animal and Plant Health Authority (APHA). I decided to submit a Freedom of Information request to APHA requesting the total number of pheasants reared in England in 2018, broken down by local authority area and by postcode district. At first, they refused to disclose the more detailed postcode district data, but released county-level pheasant numbers, which you can view in this Google Sheet here.
This data shows there were 20,756,012 pheasants reared in England in 2018 across 3,907 premises, and that 770 premises in just 4 counties account for nearly a third (32%) of this total:
- North Yorkshire – 2,645,295 registered pheasants
- Devon – 1,539,312
- Cambridgeshire – 1,280,095
- Norfolk – 1,127,320
But what about more granular data? I appealed APHA’s refusal, and they relented…
The postcode district with a million pheasants
APHA eventually released to me data on the number of pheasants in England broken down by postcode district. Here’s their FOI response, and the data in PDF format; and here’s the dataset, slightly cleaned up, in a Google Spreadsheet.
Some startling things leap out from this:
- One postcode district, YO61 in North Yorks, contains over a million pheasants!
- There are 11 postcode districts containing over 200,000 pheasants each.
- These top 11 postcode districts account for 3.6 million pheasants, spread over just 149 premises / shooting estates.
- In other words – there is a high concentration of pheasants in a small number of areas, and over a small number of estates.
Here’s the top 11:
|Postcode district||Pheasant numbers||Number of premises|
To get a clearer picture of pheasant densities across England, and start honing in on the likely biggest estates, I turned the dataset into a map – by combining it with a postcode polygon dataset derived from OS & Royal Mail data by OpenDoorLogistics. Here it is in Google Fusion Tables, and here’s a screengrab below:
Attribution: Copyright © 2015 by OpenDoorLogistics (www.opendoorlogistics.com). Contains Royal Mail data © Royal Mail copyright and database right 2015. Contains National Statistics data © Crown copyright and database right 2015.
Identifying shooting estates in these hotspots
Armed with this data on where the highest concentrations of pheasants are makes it a lot easier to start tracking down large shooting estates. I’ll focus here on examples of estates I’ve identified in two clusters: 1) North Yorkshire (postcodes YO61, YO62 and YO18); and 2) Devon around Exmoor (EX32 and nearby).
1) Pheasant shoots in North Yorkshire
YO61, the postcode district with over a million pheasants in it belonging to just a dozen estates, lies on the edge of the Howardian Hills AONB in North Yorkshire. Oddly, shooting website GunsOnPegs.com doesn’t list any pheasant shoots within that postcode district. But searching the area on Google Maps brings up at least one likely name: the Newburgh Priory Estate. This is the 5,889-acre estate of Sir George Wombwell, 7th baronet (his ancestor fought in the Charge of the Light Brigade). It’s also a large pheasant shoot, with “no shortage of birds”, according to ShootingUK. This Highways Act map of the estate, outlined in red, gives a sense of its scale (some is also missing off the top):
A pheasant shoot in progress at Newburgh Priory. Source.
In neighbouring YO62 reside a mere 230,650 pheasants, spread over 24 premises. This postcode district covers both the Howardian Hills AONB and part of the North York Moors National Park. Large shooting estates here include the 3,000-acre Hovingham Estate of Sir William Worsley, baronet. GunsOnPegs states that pheasant shooting at Hovingham “takes place within the Estate woodlands”. Sir William was not long ago appointed the government’s Tree Champion; let’s hope he’s taking heed of the GWCT’s research showing the negative ecological impacts that high densities of pheasants can have on woodlands…
Other pheasant shoots in YO62 listed on GunsOnPegs include the Ravenswick Estate near Kirkbymoorside (which has an intriguing, chequered history: the stately home was recently demolished and a fresh one planned by a mysterious new owner); and the 5,000-acre Farndale shoot, further north onto the moors.
It seems likely that some of the pheasant shoots in this part of the world belong to grouse moor-owning estates that dominate the North York Moors. For instance, the Spaunton Estate of Moorland Association committee member George Winn-Darley offers both grouse and pheasant shooting. And in the adjacent postcode district YO18 (home to 377,700 pheasants in 8 premises), the Westerdale and Rosedale Estate of Carphone Warehouse founder David Ross also operates both grouse and pheasant shoots.
2) Pheasant shoots around Exmoor, Devon
EX32, on the edge of Exmoor in Devon, contains 280,750 pheasants over 9 premises. Within this postcode district lies the Castle Hill Estate, owned by the Fortescue Farm Partnership (they show up in the Section 31 declarations layer on our Who Owns England map). There’s nothing on their website to immediately suggest they’re a pheasant shoot; but GunsOnPegs has an entry for the ‘Temple Shoot’, which advertises itself as taking place on the Castle Hill Estate in North Devon. The estate appears to belong to Lady Laura Duckworth-Chad, daughter of the Countess of Arran and Conservative Peer the Earl of Arran. So, whilst many pheasant shoots appear to be run by smaller farms and businesses, at least some of the larger shoots are owned by the aristocracy.
One final example illustrates another, more modern driver of ever-larger pheasant shoots: the shooting syndicate. The Badgworthy Land Company is a major landowner and big shooting syndicate founded in 1926; Land Registry data shows it owns a huge 12,500 acres. Companies House records reveal the Badgworthy Land Company’s registered address to be within the EX32 postcode district – so any pheasants it’s rearing will likely be recorded by APHA as being within this district. But the land on which it rears and releases the pheasants is in fact further to the east, over on Exmoor, as the map below shows (source):
That suggests the APHA pheasant dataset is a good, but not perfect, guide to where the highest densities of pheasants are in England. Clearly more research is needed into who owns the largest pheasant estates, and what ecological impacts they’re having on the surrounding environment; but meanwhile, the numbers of pheasants rise and rise.
Will DEFRA fund such research? I wouldn’t necessarily bet on it:
A somewhat younger Michael Gove on a pheasant shoot. Source.