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A Story Of Two Disappearing Pheasants

By 1971, the population in Buckingham and Bedfordshire was estimated to be 200 pairs and Lady Amherst’s pheasant was added to the British Ornithological Union’s (BOU) British List in the C1 category for naturalized introduced species alongside the Egyptian goose, Mandarin duck, and little owl.

By the late 1980s, the population in Bedfordshire had already started to decline, with males making up about three-quarters of the population, although it should be noted that females are much harder to spot. By the turn of the century, it was estimated that there were just 40 pairs remaining, with the loss of habitat, degradation of the understorey, particularly by the introduced Chinese muntjac deer, predation by foxes, inbreeding, and disturbance by bird watchers, all put forward as reasons for the population decline.

In 2005, the BOU downgraded Lady Amherst’s pheasant to Category C6 of the British List. This is a sub category for formerly naturalized species which are either no longer self-sustaining or are considered extinct. This meant that any birds spotted which are not from the original self-sustaining population could not be added to birders’ life lists so the few remaining birds became a must-see for anyone serious about completing their list.

From 2015 it was thought there was just one remaining male left living in the woods on the edge of Millbrook Proving Ground, a vehicle testing facility near the village of Lidlington in Bedfordshire. To protect the commercial interests of its customers the ground maintains a high level of security and secrecy. The facility is hidden from view and access is generally not allowed to members of the public.

For a long time, the precise location of this last Lady Amherst’s pheasant was kept a closely-guarded secret, but this did not stop avid birders attempting to trespass on Millbrook Proving Ground in the hope of catching a glimpse of the elusive bird. Photography on the ground is strictly forbidden without express permission from the owners, so enthusiastic birders turning up with powerful optics and long lenses posed a potential risk.

Eventually, with the blessing of the owners of Millbrook, the decision was made to reveal the location in the hope that law-abiding birders would effectively police the irresponsible few and act as a deterrent against further break-ins and damage.

At the time, the pheasant would have been about 20 years old, and nearing the end of its natural lifespan. It has not been seen since 2016 and the bird is now considered extinct. With the species only present in the UK for about 150 years, and for some of that time artificially fed, it could be argued that, like escaped ornamental peafowls, it was never truly established, and should not have been included on the British List.

In 2019 and 2021 single males were spotted in St Andrew’s on the east coast of Fife, the only time Lady Amherst’s pheasant has been seen in the wild since 2016. It is highly unlikely that these came from the Bedfordshire population though, and were mostly likely escapes from private collections.

Golden pheasant

Like Lady Amherst’s pheasant, the golden pheasant, also known as the Chinese pheasant or rainbow pheasant, is native to the forests of south and western China. It is a beautiful bird with the tail of males making up about two-thirds of its total length. It has a bright red body with a green upper back, blue tertiaries, and dark red scapulars. The tail is dark with cinnamon-coloured spots and on the head there is a golden crest with a small red tip. The female is duller with mottled and barred brown plumage and a much shorter tail.

Male And Female Golden Pheasants

It was introduced to the UK at the end of the 19th century when it was fashionable to have ornamental birds roaming about the grounds of stately homes. The largest feral populations established themselves in the pinewood forests of Norfolk and Suffolk as well as on Tresco, the Isles of Scilly, and Brownsea Island in Dorset although these are thought to be supplemented with escapees and are not considered self-sustaining.

Another small population could be found on the South Downs but this disappeared at the turn of the century and was not thought to be self-sustaining.

In 1971 the BOU added the golden pheasant to category C1 of the British List, making Britain the only region in the Western Palearctic where golden pheasants are officially counted.

In the last 10 years numbers have dropped significantly and sightings are now rare. Wolferton Triangle near Sandringham in west Norfolk is one of the most reliable areas to see these exotic birds including            a black-throated variety Chrysolophus pictus obscurus, a mutation that can occur in both feral and captive populations.

It is estimated that there may be only 20 individuals left in the wild, not including escapees or releases, and it appears that the golden pheasant’s fate in the UK is destined to be the same as that of Lady Amherst’s pheasant.

Although habitat loss and predation are likely to been factors in its decline, section 14 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 may also have played a part in the disappearance of the golden pheasant from our countryside. Since the passing of the Act, it has been an offence to release or allow the escape of non-native animals into the wild which may have made owners of golden pheasants think twice before disposing of any birds that they no longer wanted to keep in captivity.

Yellow Golden Pheasant

They are still one of the most popular birds in aviculture due to their beautiful plumage. They are easy to keep, fairly hardy, and can become very tame. They are commonly found in zoos and aviaries and are often kept as hybrid specimens that have Lady Amherst’s pheasant in their lineage.

Various mutations occur in captive birds including dark-throated, salmon, peach, cinnamon, flame, splash, mahogany, silver, and yellow, also known as Ghigi’s golden.

Although they can’t fly very far and are clumsy in the air, golden pheasants are notorious for escaping from collections and can even dig their way out of a pen. So as long as people continue to keep them in captivity there is still a chance of spotting one in the wild.

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