Thursday 2 April 2015

To the Woods 31st March 2015

Male Lady Amherst's Pheasant in Northwest Yunnan Province China
c John and Jemi Holmes
Lady Amherst's Pheasant is normally found in southwest China and Burma but for longer than I can remember a self supporting feral population has existed in the southern parts of the UK. This reached a peak in the middle of the 20th century when 'hundreds' of feral individuals may have existed across both Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire but latterly the species has been confined to just one wood in Bedfordshire. Since its peak in population there has been a steady and inexorable decline, until the present where there may now be only one old male (possibly over twenty years old) left roaming the woods above the village of Lidlington in Bedfordshire, and once he has gone the species will be extinct in the wild in Britain. This in my opinion is a great shame.

The cause or causes of the decline are unclear but may have something to do with predation from an increased population of foxes and the decimation of the thick undergrowth, which is much favoured by the pheasant, as a result of burgeoning populations of deer, notably Muntjac and Roe Deer. 

The precise location of the wood in Bedfordshire has always been kept secret by those in the know and by one particular person who had a financial interest in maintaining its secrecy so he could charge to take birders to see the pheasants. No harm in that but all this has now come to an end as the site has recently been publicised by the Bedfordshire Bird Club due to the pressure of more and more birders wanting to see the pheasant before it is finally gone and sadly resulting in some of those birders indulging in irresponsible behaviour.

The reasons for publicising the site are not unreasonable, despite claims to the contrary from a certain person who shall remain nameless but had a vested interest in keeping the site secret, as the pheasant's wood and chosen habitat is enclosed and forms part of a highly sensitive and very security minded area called The Millbrook Proving Ground.  This is the testing track for General Motors and they are very keen on keeping the site secure and free from trespass. Unfortunately in their desire to see this elusive individual some birders have  trespassed more and more onto the site by crawling under the fence by the footpath and chased after the pheasant through the woods. I can recall more than one whispered conversation in the past with birders as they recounted tales of 'derring do', slipping under fences at dawn and catching glimpses of a Lady Amherst's Pheasant whilst dodging security patrols and cameras. By publicising the site it is hoped the majority of law abiding birders will police the irresponsible few by their presence and act as a deterrent to any further trespass and damage. We will see.

When I visited there were no more than eight birders, including me, who came throughout the day so pressures may not be that great although they are undoubtedly likely to increase as word about the site becomes more widely known.

Lady Amherst's Pheasant first arrived into Britain in 1829 when two specimens were sent here by Lady Amherst, the wife of the Governor General of Bengal. Unfortunately these soon died but further importations from 1869 onwards were more successful. The male is a spectacular looking bird with a cape of silver feathers on its black head, an enormously long barred tail, accounting for three quarters of the bird's length and a kaleidoscope of red, blue, black, white and yellow body plumage.

Like all wild pheasants and I do not include the millions of Common Pheasants released in this country every year by the shooting fraternity, it is very wary, shy, skulking and consequently extremely difficult to see, hence its desirability to keen birders.There is also the added incentive that it is shortly to become extinct in the wild in Britain.

So a wind blown Tuesday morning found me wending my way through post rush hour traffic to the village of Lidlington in Bedfordshire, about seventy miles distant from my home. Lidlington appears in the Domesday Book and is over a thousand years old, although many of its older buildings have been swamped by inbuilding and housing estates, thereby considerably lessening its ancient charm. I had detailed directions as to where to go and parking by the huge gothic church which is now defunct and undergoing a very expensive looking conversion to 'three bespoke houses', I made my way up through the primrose strewn church yard, with Jackdaws examining holes in the huge trees and joined the footpath on the other side, following it to almost the top of the hill.

As I ascended the wind got ever stronger as the elevation increased, becoming almost gale force with gusts blowing from the northwest as I found myself high on the Greensand Ridge above Lidlington. I came to a wooded area rising up the slope on my left guarded by a high chain link fence topped with barbed wire. 

The footpath running up the hill beside the fenced off wooded area on the right
Slightly further up I encountered two huddled figures standing and looking through the fence at a wide grassy ride that ran up and away at right angles from the fence and through the wood. This was obviously the place.

The ride occasionally visited by the Lady Amherst's Pheasant.
It appeared at the very top of the ride when I saw it
I got chatting to the two birders who were from London and discovered that they had been there for over an hour already but had not seen anything. They also told me they had been here on Sunday morning for four hours and again had seen nothing. They pointed out an area near the top of the ride on the left that had obviously been baited with seed and was currently being visited by Grey Squirrels, Blackbirds and Great Tits. A male Common Pheasant wandered down from the top of the ride to the seed but did not stay long.

The wind howled constantly around us and roared through the bare branches of the mature trees above but it was still relatively mild when the sun shone. At our elevation, looking back I could see vast distances over Marston Vale and the nearby Brogborough Lake was a slash of blue water amongst the shades of green and brown.

Another birder came up the hill and joined us after an hour. We got talking to him. He too had been on Sunday but in the afternoon and he too had seen nothing for the hours he had spent here. We stood, buffeted by the  constant blasts of wind and the occasional short hail shower but still there was no sign of our exotic target. Stoically we waited. The wind was, if anything getting even stronger now but I was totally insulated in my goose down padded jacket. I noticed one of the London birders was shivering as the wind chill and standing still for hours took effect. Time passed slowly, during which another group of five birders came up the footpath but soon lost interest and sat on a bank further up and had their lunch before departing.

Another hour and a quarter passed. The two London birders decided to leave and walked disconsolately down the hill. Now it was just the two of us holding out. A minute later at 1220, there was some action at  the far end of the ride as a pheasant with an enormous tail blown vertical by the following wind whizzed across the ride. A flash of silver and white and it was gone into the brambles on the other side. 'That was it!' we exclaimed. Hardly the best view but it was definitely the Lady Amherst's Pheasant. We had achieved our initial objective after three hours of patient waiting but it would be nice to see it more clearly. My fellow birder looked down the hill and signalled to the departing birders about the pheasant's  sudden appearance. They turned and wearily came back and cursed their luck. One or two more minutes before departing and they too would have seen it. They stood and waited for another thirty or so minutes but the pheasant did not return. Reluctantly they left as they had other commitments. I felt for them. Four hours on both Sunday and today, and all for nothing. My new found birding colleague went for a walk further up the hill following the footpath to check if there were any other likely or possible viewpoints.

Shortly after he had left a four wheel drive vehicle came up the hill on the other side of the fence. Security. The driver in a 'high vis' jacket stopped and got out, enquiring if I had seen the pheasant? I replied 'Yes, for all of two seconds!'  We got chatting and he told me how he sees the pheasant regularly on his patrols and on occasions gets very close to it, so much so he has even managed to video it. He told me he was a birder, but only in a mild way and recounted how the pheasants used to be more numerous and would sometimes get run over by speeding vehicles on the test track.

I told him about the loose fencing that was being used by unscrupulous birders and he went away to get some wire, returning much later to fix the problem.

Security man fixing the fence
Hopefully this will deter any further incursions into the wood by over enthusiastic birders and save any unfortunate confrontations and disturbance to the pheasant.

My birding colleague returned, advising that there was nothing further up that looked likely to be better than where we were at the moment. We stood looking up the ride, quietly chatting and comparing twitches we had been on. He was relatively local, coming from nearby Luton. I scanned the ride with my bins for the umpteenth time. A black and silver  head appeared at the top of the ride. 'There it is again!' I whispered and for about six seconds a vision of feathered loveliness was before us. A silver hood scaled with black edges, a flash of red and yellow, black and white underparts and an enormously long grey barred tail was all that I managed to assimilate and then it was gone.

We shook hands, smiles all round, sharing this moment and the tension abated.This had been a much better view and we now felt as if we had seen the pheasant properly. To be truthful I am not sure what I had expected. All previous reports had cautioned about being over optimistic and that each sighting lasted only seconds, although there have been exceptions where the views have been more prolonged and consequently more satisfactory, but I was happy with what I had achieved as was my new found colleague.

Time wore on but there was to be no repeat appearance. A female Common Pheasant came to the seed and spent a very long time cautiously feeding at the edge of the ride just out of cover of the brambles.

I think the wind had quite a lot of bearing on the Lady Amherst's behaviour. It was blowing from behind us and up the ride so we figured the pheasant would prefer the lee side of the hill which was sheltered from the wind but out of bounds and out of sight from our vantage point on the footpath.

Not to worry. I had seen my first and possibly the last wild Lady Amherst's Pheasant in Great Britain.

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