This section is from the book "The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation", by George Abbey. Also available from Amazon: The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation.
The pheasant, as its name proclaims, is the bird of Phasis, the Caucasian river that falls into the Black Sea not far from the modern Batoum. But if the Argonauts brought it thence, as legends set forth, they certainly did not bring it so far as England. The bird, however, was at least naturalized in this country very long ago, if it was not a native. King John in 1190 granted to William Briwere a licence to " hunt the hare, fox, cat, and wolf in Devonshire, with a 'free warren' throughout all his own lands for hares, pheasants and partridges," which implies that pheasants then ran wild. Before that, the Abbot of Amesbuiy is said to have been licensed by Henry I to kill hares and pheasants, and King Harold's regulations prescribe a pheasant as an alternative to two partridges in the rations of the canons of Waltham Abbey.
When pheasant-rearing for purposes of sport was instituted we have no distinct or definite data; though an introduced 1 bird it probably obtained from very remote times. Be that as it may, it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that pheasant-rearing came much into vogue, though for a long time before a good stock of pheasants were kept in the coverts by regular feeding by placing small stacks of unthrashed corn in different parts of the wood, raising them about a foot from the ground, and so affording amusement for the birds as well as food. This is supplemented by hand-feeding with maize, wheat, barley, buckwheat, dari and oats. Maize is generally preferred to the smaller grain, for one reason.
1 This is very questionable as regards the old English or dark-necked (Phasianus colchicus), above all that sparrows, yellow-hammers and other grain-eating birds are unable to eat it. Of course, the locations for feeding are where spruce and other straight, horizontally branched conifers of size suitable for roosting are near. Oaks and beech trees too afford acorns and mast, and are desirable trees to have in a covert: also as undergrowth the bramble, hazel, dogrose, and hawthorn, where, not too much overtopped, they afford natural food for the birds. Thus the pheasant - feeds encourage grain-eating birds, and also the frugiverous, the former making sad havoc in cornfields, and the latter in fruit plantations; and as small woods are preferred to large, the coverts are largely distributed over a district.
But the pheasants are not allowed to breed naturally, pheasant eggs being too great a temptation, and the birds have so great attraction for foxes that they are taken up for the breeding season. This is done about the beginning of February, as some time is required for them to get over their wildness. Five hens and one cock bird are placed in a pen, and a change of cock from a distance effected if possible. Then there are eggs, say 150 from each pen, and from six pens 900, and so on up to several thousands. Broody hens, not pheasant, but domestic fowls, such as Silver Wyandotte, are employed for incubation and foster-mothers, and from the hatching quarters the hens and young birds are taken to the rearing ground, each hen placed in a coop with a run in front to which the birds are confined for three or four days and then allowed to run on grass. When the birds get too large to enter the coops, these are drawn by degrees towards the coverts, and as the birds are able to fly, some tall branches are placed upright in the ground around the coops as an inducement to roosting. When at their destination they are left on a bare spot, and not finding shelter, fly into the trees to roost.
The mistake is not made to turn the half-grown pheasants into the coverts and expect them to shift for themselves, but the birds are fed on soft food until they have their second feathers, and then what do they eat? - the farmer's ripening corn, his peas and beans, his leguminous herbage, his root-crop tops, and even the roots! Of course, this depends upon circumstances, but under any conditions pheasants are given to straying, and find out crops they like at considerable distance from the covert where they are regularly fed.
Under the Land Tenure Bill, 1906, tenant farmers may claim compensation for damage by game; but what does this represent in respect of high cultivation and loss of produce to the nation? Truly, the steady increase in the number of game licence-holders is gratifying to lovers of the gun. During 1881 there were 57,983 game and shooting licences issued in the United Kingdom. In 1891 the number had increased to 60,010, an addition during the decade of 2,027. During 1896 there were no fewer than 62,750 licences to shoot game issued, showing an increase of 2,700 upon the return of 1891. This also means corresponding increase of game, and that signifies less crop production, and consequently less food for the masses.
Tenant-farmers are practically powerless to deal with pheasants to their advantage, for the killing season does not begin till October I, and then the pheasants have been withdrawn from the fields and overgrown hedges into the coverts. Recouping themselves for damage in that respect is out of the question, and as for compensation in regard to amount of good done by the insects consumed, that is relegated to the rearing field.
Pheasants are easily caught in traps, such as the ordinary wicker (Wm. Burgess & Co., Malvern Wells), and the wire cage (Boulton & Paul, Norwich); these are generally used for taking up pheasants for breeding purposes, but, of course, they answer at any time. Makeshift "take-ups" are formed of wire-netting with pockets or mouths easy of entrance, but difficult of egress, and tanned netting on top. The wood-pigeon cage may also be used for capturing pheasants. Poachers have recourse to various wiles to capture pheasants, one of which, on the authority of a gamekeeper, is given as the most telling, namely, strewing sultana raisins about and leading away from the feeds; and when this has been effected to a safe place, a number of small fish-hooks are secured by short lines to underwood stems or pegs and each hook baited with a sultana raisin. The pheasants swallow the raisins and hooks with a result that may be better imagined than described.