The modern sporting pheasant
Up and down the country, you will find die-hard advocates of every strain of pheasant from English blacknecks and French ringnecks to Michigan bluebacks. But is there such a thing as the perfect sporting pheasant? Marcus Janssen does some delving.
(Photograph: John MacTavish)
There are 49 species of pheasant and peafowl worldwide, all of which – apart from one, the Congo peafowl – are native to the Asian continent. Within this Phasianidae family, there are 16 groups or subfamilies of pheasants, with the common pheasant and green pheasant being classified under the same genus: true or typical pheasants (genus Phasianus). Thereafter, numerous subspecies exist such as the Mongolian ringneck and Chinese ringneck, with each strain varying slightly in appearance and morphology.
Pheasants have been resident in Britain for around 2,000 years, having arrived with the Romans who brought them over as a bird for the table, so the predecessor of the wild pheasant we have in the UK today was probably a semi-domesticated farmyard fowl, much like hens are today.
But by the time the Romans left Britain after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the pheasant had become established as a wild bird of the forest and forest fringe, and by the 15th century, they were widespread throughout large parts of the country. Today we would refer to those early birds as ‘Old English’ʼor blackneck pheasants as they lacked the distinctive white ring around their neck of the Chinese and Mongolian varieties which were later introduced and cross-bred with feral stock.
So, in truth, the wild pheasant of today can be described as a mongrel, having evolved from many different strains over a long period of time. As anyone with an interest in shooting will know, pheasants exhibit considerable variations in plumage, colour and size.
The perfect sporting pheasant
Although there is little or no empirical evidence to support the widely-held belief that the various strains and subspecies of pheasants vary in their behaviour, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence, and the general consensus seems to be that there is no such thing as the perfect all-round sporting pheasant. Rather, each strain has its place, depending on a number of factors, namely terrain, habitat, topography, shooting pressure and the expectations of the Guns.
“We appreciate that every keeper has their own personal preference,” explains Richard Crofts, who runs Bettws Hall’s game farm and hatchery which now hatches in the region of 8 million birds per year. “For example, on shoots in Devon or the South Downs, your French commons might be ideal as the Guns tend to be pegged at the bottom of steep valleys, so there is no real need for the birds to climb at all; they simply need to fly across the valley to a block of wood or cover on the other side.”
Brian Mitchell, headkeeper at Castle Hill in Devon agrees: “One night after the famous Exmoor GamekeepersʼChallenge, I got into a discussion with a number of other keepers about the best strain of pheasant for this part of the world and we all agreed that a bigger bird such as the French common or a Polish/Bazanty-cross is more likely to take on our big valleys than the smaller Chinese strains which have a habit of veering out the side of drives.”
And in Wales, for example, where birds are often driven from the sides of mountains, they really need to retain their trajectory until they reach the Guns, rather than dipping and following the contours. “We have found that something with a bit of spice, such as a Manchurian-cross (with a French common) is a better option,” adds Richard.
Equally, on flat ground – such as in parts of East Anglia – where the rate at which a bird climbs is crucial, the smaller Chinese ringneck or Manchurian strains might be preferable over a heavier, bigger-bodied bird like a blackneck or French common ringneck. So it is very much a case of horses for courses.
“Terrain is unquestionably key,” continues Richard, “but there are other considerations, too, such as rearing and feeding costs. A big bird is obviously going to consume a lot more feed than a small one; however, bigger birds also tend to be easier to hold onto and control as they will come back to your feed hoppers more willingly and regularly. So there is always a compromise.” Which is why most game farmers and rearers choose to cross different strains in an effort to produce birds that hold well but also have some of the sporting characteristics of the smaller, slighter strains.
As already mentioned, most of the strains in the UK are sub-species of the common pheasant, Phasianus colchicus, but confusion arises because different names are often used for the same strain or variety. For example, the ‘Michigan blueback’ is actually a pure Chinese ringneck, and the ‘K-Thunder’ is a trade name for a Kansas-cross produced by Bill MacFarlane of MacFarlane Pheasants in the USA, which was also originally bred from Chinese ringneck stock.
Having said that, it is a widely-held belief that the best-flying strains are of Mongolian and Chinese descent. These are often sold in the UK as ‘French commons’, ‘Bazanties’ (Bazanty is also a trade name belonging to Gib’ Océan, a major pheasant farmer in France), ‘Scandinavian’ and ‘Michigan bluebacks’.
(Photograph: Chris Knights)
The Polish ringneck or ‘Bazanty’ is a common ringneck pheasant of Polish descent (Bazanty being Gib’ Océan’s trade name). Very similar in appearance to the French common, but slightly smaller in size, these birds are now widely used on estates across the UK as they have a reputation for holding and flying well and have therefore proved to be a popular choice with gamekeepers and Guns alike.
The Polish strain features heavily at Bettws Hall’s game farm: “The majority of what we rear,” says Richard Crofts, “is a mix between Polish and French common – 30 per cent Polish, 40 per cent French common and 20 per cent Manchurian-crosses (which is what we use on our own West Country shoots), with the rest made up of pure-breed Manchurian, Kansas and Chinese.”
Wild fen pheasant
(Photograph: David Mason)
Anyone who has shot wild pheasants in the Lincolnshire or Cambridgeshire Fens will know that they are small and flighty, they climb more steeply than a Spitfire, and they often change direction mid-drive and veer for gaps between beaters and Guns. Many would argue that they couldn’t be more different to the cumbersome English blackneck, but in truth they are essentially the same thing – a mongrel that has evolved over generations as new strains and genes have been introduced into Britain. In terms of appearance, apart from being small in size, there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ fen pheasant – some have white rings around their necks, others don’t – but what makes these birds so distinctive is the way they fly, which isn’t down to their strain, necessarily, but their wildness and small size, and the fact that they have adapted to their typically flat and exposed environment.
Manchurian birds are imported to the UK by Bill MacFarlane of MacFarlane’s Pheasants in Wisconsin, who crosses Chinese ringneck hens with pure Manchurian cocks (he originally imported the pure Manchurian eggs directly from Changchun Province in north-east China and retains a pure flock as brood stock).
The cockbird is very distinctive with a broad white ring around the neck and a white spot on the cheek. Like the Kansas and Michigan blueback strains, they tend to have a pale grey/blue back. And like the Kansas, the Manchurian is renowned for its flying ability, making it a good option for flat-ground shoots. But they also have a reputation for wandering/straying. “I am a big fan of Manchurian crosses,” says Peter Bailey of Branches Park Hatchery near Newmarket, who supplies Belvoir Castle with their pheasants.
“I believe they have a bit more about them than the Kansas – they’re more powerful and climb just as steeply, but they keep going for longer. Kansas pheasants have a fantastically fast wingbeat, but they don’t keep going and don’t fly as fast as you think they do. And in my experience, if Manchurian crosses are looked after well, they will stay well.”
“On our Bettws Hall shoots, we tend to release Manchurian crosses (Manchurian cocks crossed with French common hens),” says Caleb Sutton, shoot manager at Molland, West Molland and Chargot. “The idea is to try to combine the holding characteristics and size of the French common with the energy and smaller shape of the Manchurian, so that you end up with a bird that holds well and flies well.”
Often referred to in the UK as a Michigan blueback, this strain, which is imported to the UK from France and America, is essentially a Chinese ringneck. Similar in size and appearance to the Kansas, they have a white ring around their neck and can have a distinctive pale blue/grey back, but are slightly larger in size than the Kansas. And like the Kansas, they are also reputed to fly higher than other breeds but will not withstand too much shooting pressure and can be difficult to hold onto (they have a reputation for settling wherever they land after a drive rather than returning home, so can result in low returns). However, a number of shoots have enjoyed great success with various Michigan crosses.
(Photograph: David Mason)
The Kansas or K-Thunder (Bill MacFarlane’s trade name) was originally bred by the late Bernie Janssen – a longtime gamebird farmer from Kansas – from Chinese ringneck stock as a ‘put and take’ bird for the American market (they are released on the day of shooting and then walked-up with pointers in the afternoon). The Kansas is the smallest strain of pheasant available in the UK – the cocks weigh between 2.25 and 2.5lb – and has a very erect posture. They are an energetic and alert bird, and tend to be flighty, but are renown for their flying ability, making them another good option for flat-ground shoots. But, like the Chinese ringneck/Michigan blueback, they tend to wander because they don’t need to feed as regularly as other larger strains.
Common ringneck/French common
(Photograph: Peter Keyser)
A large, powerful bird, the French common or common ringneck is considered by many to be a good all-rounder with reasonable holding characteristics, but they tend not to be as strong in flight as other similar strains such as the Polish/Bazanty or Scandinavian varieties. They are favoured by many game farmers, though, as they are a hardy, robust bird that produces large clutches of eggs, and they are often used for cross breeding with other, smaller, better-flying strains.
(Photograph: John MacTavish)
Similar in appearance to the French common, but somewhat smaller in size, the Scandinavian pheasant was apparently brought to the UK as first generation offspring from wild birds from islands off Sweden. Although they are reputed to fly well, they are low egg producers, small and can be difficult to rear, so pure Scandinavian birds have become a rarity in the UK with breeders opting to cross them with other strains such as Chinese ringnecks. “Scandinavians were all the rage in the 1980s,” says Caleb Sutton, “but for some reason you don’t see many of them these days. Although they had a reputation for flying well, they were also known for wandering; I know of several keepers who had issues with holding them, particularly in woodland.”
(Photograph: Peter Keyser)
This traditional English bird, once widely used but now less common on sporting estates, has very good holding characteristics and will tolerate more shooting pressure than other strains, but it is regarded as a poor flyer. “Whenever I have heard stories of birds not flying well, it has usually been attributed to blacknecks,” says Brian Mitchell. Indeed, some gamekeepers refer to the blackneck as the lazy gamekeepers’ bird. Opinion is also divided about melanistic pheasants: faultfinders admit they are decorative but believe they have a tendency to stray.
Many keepers and shoot managers believe that the quality of a bird (pedigree of stock – regardless of strain – and health) is generally more important than strain. And the best way to ensure pedigree of stock is to breed selectively from a closed flock. “If a game farmer catches up his brood stock from a number of different shoots,” says Brian Mitchell, “he will have no way of knowing if their pedigree has been compromised by wild birds or birds from neighbouring estates, and he will also have no way of knowing whether they are all healthy birds – they may have been affected by disease.” Richard Crofts agrees: “Overwintering of laying stock is key as this ensures that everything produced is first generation.”
“Selective breeding is probably the most important factor in ensuring your birds perform well,” says Ray Holden of Hy-Fly Game Hatcheries, “but so is good habitat and good husbandry, which are arguably more important than strain. No matter what strain you have, if you don’t look after them from day one, they will never perform well.”
“The most important thing in my view, is health,” adds Peter Bailey. “If a bird has previously had a setback, such as from disease, it will never fully recover. They seem to lose their sting and will not fly well.” For that reason, it is immensely important that birds are well looked after once they arrive at the shoot. “Regardless of where or who you get your birds from, ill health can undermine the whole thing,” continues Brian. “So the positioning of your pens is crucial – you need low ground cover for protection from aerial predators and shelter from harsh weather, open space for sunning and drying off, and you need good roosting cover. In addition, stagnant water harbours disease which can then spread through the flock. We spend a lot of time before the birds go into the pens ensuring that there is no still, stagnant water.
“Stocking densities are crucial, too. There is a level at which the birds’ health will start to suffer.
At the moment, our shoot is very popular and there is a temptation to up the number of birds, but we know this could be shortsighted. And finally, using the best quality food you can get is another key factor. This has a huge impact on their health and how well they perform on shoot days.”
And of course no pheasant, regardless of strain, will remain on a shoot if it doesn’t have the right habitat, food and water.
Size does matter
It is also worth remembering that all of the pheasants shot in the UK end up in the food chain, and it is hardly surprising that larger, meatier birds make for better eating than the smaller varieties. “The key demand for pheasants in the UK is for whole oven-ready birds,” says Ben Bowyer, general manager of Willo Game in Shropshire who supply over 40 retailers with fresh venison and game. “So, for this reason, we prefer the bigger birds and are wary of taking the smaller strains; if the fillets are too small the bird is effectively worthless.”