Skip to content

Tim Bonner: Natural England, the RSPB and the non-native pheasant

Language is important and when the Chairman of Natural England - the government's advisor on the natural environment - uses a description, it matters. Yesterday, Tony Juniper, who holds that position, appeared before the EFRA select committee. When he was asked about the reintroduction of species he embarked on a rather random discussion about the release of "non-native" pheasants.

This description is very strictly correct. Pheasants were introduced to Britain by the Romans and whilst there is archaeological evidence of their presence across Roman Britain and literary evidence from the 11th century onwards, they are not originally native to our islands. If you are going to be consistent, however, and the duty of the government's nature advisor must be to be consistent, that same "non-native" description should be applied to a host of other species. By Tony Juniper's classification the brown hare, which is subject to a Biodiversity Action Plan, is also a "non-native" species. It too was introduced by the Romans, but strangely neither Tony Juniper, or anyone else, seems to consider them "non-native".

It had been thought that the rabbit, that most commonplace of British mammals, had been introduced by the Normans, but recent carbon dating suggests that they too were brought over the channel by the Romans. The Romans were very busy and also introduced fallow deer to England, however, genetic analysis has shown that those original introductions died out and the fallow deer that currently roam the British countryside originated from animals imported by the Normans to stock their deer parks.

All these mammals are normally described as "naturalised" in that they have become part of our countryside, and in some cases actually shaped it, over centuries. Why then would the chairman of the government's advisor on the natural environment discriminate between these species and the pheasant? The answer, you will not be surprised to learn, is because of the pheasant's role in game shooting and Tony Juniper's adoption of language used by those who are opposed to it. Anti-shooting campaigner Mark Avery probably started the use of the description "non-native" more than 10 years ago when he was Director of Conservation at the RSPB. Other groups which have a negative view of shooting adopted the tag. The Wildlife Trusts are particularly blatant describing the brown hare as "naturalised" and the pheasant as "non-native" side-by-side on its website. They do this for the simple reason that the "non-native" description suggests that pheasants are somehow out of place in the countryside, whereas a "naturalised" species is considered entirely benign.

Tony Juniper was previously Director of Friends of the Earth and, unfortunately, it is not particularly surprising that he has adopted the pejorative language of similar organisations despite it being completely illogical. There is a perfectly legitimate debate to be had about the impact of game shooting and the release of pheasants in the countryside. We think that the evidence is clear that responsible game management creates a net biodiversity gain and are very ready to argue that case. What is not acceptable is the chairman of the government's natural environment advisor adopting the prejudiced language of those who oppose shooting as a whole.

Become a member

Join the Countryside Alliance

We are the most effective campaigning organisation in the countryside.

  • life Protect our way of life
  • news Access our latest news
  • insurance Get comprehensive insurance
  • magazine Receive our magazine