The history of the pheasant is as long and exotic as his tail. Do you know your pheasant history? Read on, you will be surprised...
The history of the pheasant has its origins over 2000 years ago. Just when the history of the pheasant started, and how pheasants arrived in Britain, is a matter of considerable debate. Mike Yardley examines the origins of the sporting bird below. You may also be interested in the history of the shotgun and shooting, a story that goes hand in hand with the story of the pheasant.
HISTORY OF THE PHEASANT: ROMAN BRITAIN
When did the history of the pheasant in Britain begin? Phoenician traders, coming from what is now called Lebanon, have been mentioned. The most widely touted and perhaps most plausible theory is that pheasants were imported to these shores – and to France – by Roman officers who bred them for the table (the bird having been brought to southern Europe from Asia, possibly with Greek assistance).
As far as post-Romano Albion is concerned, the first documentary evidence of the pheasant’s existence, a starting point for the history ofthe pheasant, is an order of King Harold who offered the canons of Waltham Abbey a “commons” pheasant as an alternative to a brace of partridges as a specific privil-ege of their office in 1059. A record exists relating to the monks of Rochester who, in 1089, received from Bishop Randulfus 16 pheasants, 30 geese, 300 hens, 1,000 lampreys, 1,000 eggs, four salmon and six sheaves of wheat.
HISTORY OF THE PHEASANT: 1066
Pheasants may have been esteemed for their gastronomic potential in pre-Norman England, but it is clear that they were not yet that widely distributed. The Normans and their gaulieters were notable pheasant fanciers, nevertheless, and passed stringent laws to protect these and many other species. These evidently worked to a degree, with pheasants appearing on the menus of many medieval banquets. Henry I granted the Abbot of Amesbury near Stone-henge the right to kill pheasants in 1100, shortly after the abbey was founded. Thomas Becket famously dined on pheasant the night before his infamously violent death in 1170.
Pheasants remained popular table-birds during the 14th and 15th centuries, their approximate cost going from a maximum (as decreed by law) of one shilling and four pence early in the 14th century to a shilling towards the end (a price also mentioned circa 1500). And what of the pheasant’s sporting role? Nearly all the references relate to ecclesiastical eating fests. Perhaps the most extraordinary was that of Neville, Archbishop of York, whose inauguration banquet in 1465 featured no fewer than 200 pheasants, not to mention 12 porpoises and seals, 104 peacocks, 400 swans, 500 stags, 2,000 geese, 4,000 mallard and teal and six boar among many other culinary treats.
HISTORY OF THE PHEASANT: TUDOR TABLES
Henry VIII, the second Tudor king, appears to have kept a French priest as a “fesaunt breeder” according to his privy purse accounts for 1532 and it is clear from contemporary records that they were better established in some localities – Wiltshire, East Anglia and Yorkshire – than others such as Cumberland. Polydore Vergil, an Italian émigré, who published a history of England, Historia Anglica, in 1534, was struck by the English taste for flesh of all sorts and noted in particular how Englishmen kept pheasants “fostered in the howse as [sic] breeding in their woodds”. This and other references suggest that they may have been managed in a similar manner to rabbits in their warrens.
For how best to eat them now try one of our top 10 best pheasant recipes.
PRESERVING THE PHEASANT: JAMES I
In Scotland in 1594, James VI – later James I of England and Ireland – legislated to protect pheasants and other species from being taken by various means including the use of firearms. This is significant but must be qualified.
Strict game laws notwithstanding, it is likely that sitting and perching pheasants were sometimes shot for the pot with bows in the Middle Ages as well as captured by other means as later mentioned by Markham. In the pre-firearms era they may also have been shot for sport with crossbows.
Practical hand-held firearms arrived on the British scene circa 1500 – we know Henry VIII was an enthusiast – and it seems probable that pheasants and other creatures were shot sitting or perching from this point on. Shakespeare makes reference to “birding” in The Merry Wives of Windsor, first published in 1602, (an allusion that may denote shooting). During the Civil War years game populations were generally depleted by foraging soldiers (armed, as far as their guns were concerned, with heavy matchlock muskets).
Shooting flying is most likely traced to the Restoration, coming to England with Charles II’s returning courtiers, who brought lightweight flintlock guns, but did not become really popular until the late 18th century. The first illustration of a shot pheasant in Britain may be found in Blome’s Hawking or Faulconry, 1686, but the bird appears to have been killed with the old static shooting technique of gun and stalking horse.
Gervase Markham’s English work of 1621, Hunger’s Prevention or The Whole Art of Fowling by Water and Land, also considers the use of guns but pays more attention to capturing birds by means other than shooting at them. He informs us that there were three common methods for taking pheasants – netting, liming and the use of “particular engines” (traps). We also know that by the early 1500s at latest, and possibly for centuries before, they were being taken for sport using trained birds of prey.
HISTORY OF THE PHEASANT: IRELAND
Meanwhile, in Ireland, pheasants were being reared from at latest the 1590s as confirmed by the Itinerary – the work of English soldier of fortune Fynes Moryson. “In that country,” he noted, “such plenty of pheasants that I have known 60 served up at one feast”. Pheasants were introduced into Pembrokeshire from the south of Ireland in the 17th century rather than from England as one might expect.
Robin Knowles tells me that he once unearthed a manuscript in a library in Northern Ireland concerning Sir John McGill of Gill Hall in Co Down. In 1674, McGill held a grand pheasant-shoot on his estate which had been stocked with 900 birds obtained by natural hatch and from eggs hatched under broody hens. He invited 64 guns – a nobleman and a commoner from each of Ireland’s 32 counties – to shoot and they bagged 300 pheasants in a day. The event is also notable because it emulates the “show hunts” then popular as a demonstration of wealth and power on the Continent, and which would later provide the inspiration for the organised pheasant “battue” in Britain.
‘PRESERVING’ THE PHEASANT
In the 1700s the history of the pheasant faced a blip. Pheasants declined in both England and Ireland as a result of woodland clearance and the drainage of marshes, while hare, rabbit and partridge populations increased. The problem was recognised and remedial action, taken to save and improve the common bird (Phasianus col-chicus). A fashion for “preserving” became apparent in England from about 1800 and was supported by tough game laws, which were not reformed until 1831.
The rise of the pheasant also owes something to the Enclosure Acts of the 18th and early 19th century. The squire often acquired the local woods and these were most easily stocked with pheasants – more amenable birds to manage than native species – for sporting purposes. Unlike grouse and partridges, they were not likely to flock when driven and could be held to the ground with relative ease. It may be conjectured that this – as well as their exotic appearance- was a major factor in their sporting success.
HISTORY OF THE PHEASANT: IMPORTING NEW PHEASANT BREEDS
Pheasants started being reared by artificial as well as natural means, with new species and sub-species being introduced. The Chinese ringneck (Phasianus torquatus) – first called the “ring pheasant” – was imported from southern China in 1768 as all things oriental came into vogue. In the 1790s Lord McCartney, the first British ambassador to Peking, brought back means of artificial incubation. What these were has eluded my research to date, but they were probably jars or something similar. The decorative, long-tailed Reeves’ pheasant (Syrmaticus reevesii) arrived in 1831 thanks to John Reeves, a keen naturalist and tea collector for the East India Company based in Canton.
The Japanese southern green (Phasianus versicolor) was introduced in 1840 by Lord Derby, who acquired a cock and a hen for his menagerie at Knowsley Park, then situated outside Liverpool but now set within its urban sprawl. Derby’s hen died and the cockbird was then mated to an ordinary hen. The versicolor (green) female progeny were offered back to their father. The incestuous mating was repeated until the birds were as green as possible. This may be where our melanistic mutants originate from – though there are other theories.
Derby died in 1851 and his collection was dispersed. The best stock was carried off to Italy by a Russian nobleman, while the crossbred birds were acquired by the elder JH Gurney, a Norfolk Quaker and banker, and certain other gentlemen. Gurney corresponded with Darwin on the subject, the fertility of offspring of Japanese birds crossed with common pheasants being discussed in the latter’s famous work on natural selection. Some of Gurney’s birds were released in his woods at Easton near Norwich and the eggs laid in his aviary were also hatched in his preserve.
In 1864 black-necked cross-verticolors were bred at Hurst Green in Sussex under the auspices of the Acclimatisation Society – a group set up by Frank Buckland and Richard Owen, FRS, that included many well-known landowners and naturalists of the day in imitation of a French model La Societé Zoologique d’Acclimatation. Buckland et al were not interested in birds only but much else including buffalo, muntjac, sika, various gazelles, and catfish. To this day, there are acclimatisation societies in Australia and New Zealand.
HISTORY OF THE PHEASANT: THE RISE OF THE BATTUE
It was in the third quarter of the 19th century that the driven-pheasant battue really established itself. Essentially a Continental import – the traditional British method was to walk-up over setters or pointers or to flush birds from cover with spaniels – the battue was first popularised by the Prince Consort in the 1840s, 50s and 60s and taken up by his wayward but trend-setting son, Edward Albert (notably at Sandringham). The early form had been to walk in line with the beaters through a prepared wood, which was typically netted to the sides and back. Later, post 1860 or thereabouts, guns and beaters were split into different parties along modern lines. Bags increased with demand and possibility as much faster-firing breech-loaders were introduced after the Great Exhibition.
QUEST FOR PERFECTION
As both ornithology and “covert” shooting – as the battue came to be called – increased in popularity, more pheasants were imported, notably more Japanese birds. They were not especially hardy and were crossed with Chinese and Mongolian pheasants (the latter being a large, hardy type, arriving about 1900). In the mid 1880s the Prince of Wales pheasant (Phasianus principalis) was encountered in swampy areas of Afghanistan by members of the Afghan Boundary Commission, and shot in some numbers. It was soon brought home – thanks to the endeavours of a Colonel Sunderland – and named in honour of Edward Albert. Phaisianus sunderlandis
might have been more appropriate.
By the late 19th century the use of incubators was well known, though hatching under broody hens was still more usual. It is also worthy of note that pheasant rearing became a serious commercial endeavour from the mid 19th century. Early gamebird dealers included Jamrach off London’s Commercial Road (who also sold sika deer to Lord Powerscourt in Co Wicklow). By 1900 millions of birds were being reared each year though not on the scale of today’s estimated 20 million to 30 million.
There have been new imports, most famously the Michigan bluebacks, which are tough Chinese pheasants from Michigan (the introduction of the pheasant to the United States is a story worth telling but space precludes it). Today’s most popular British bird is a cross between the Michigan and the already mongrel common species (which sometimes has a ring these days). The result is a smaller, more agile quarry that flies well. The quest for perfection – a bird that flies well and holds its ground – continues.
In the words of one modern game farmer: “Just about every species and sub-species has been crossed by now. Everyone’s still trying to improve flying and holding qualities. Sometimes they get it wrong and the birds are too wild and stray off. You get big English ‘turkeys’. They have a strong following in Northumberland – where they have the hills for them – but they won’t fly on flatter ground. Japanese greens are nice but they are not that fertile and don’t produce as many eggs. The Michigans are good on fertility and rearing but exceptionally wild… and there are dozens of crosses in between.”
HISTORY OF THE PHEASANT: THE MODERN BIRD
The bird that we know today must be considered within the context of the Victorian passion for collecting, classification and hybridisation as well as an ancient heritage. Let us end by considering two of the most recent introductions: Danish birds and so called “Polish blacks”. The former look like the common pheasant but have a silver sheen on their wing feathers. The Poles are ring-necked and have probably been taken from French stock quite recently. Both are reared in colder climates where summers are shorter and it is harder to find protein. This inclines them to be tough like our own fen birds. Much may yet be written, but one thing is sure – the pheasant is an old immigrant to Britain and one that has enriched our sporting life.