Foxes & agriculture: Foxes and game birds

A male phesant in flight
Male pheasant
© C. Davey

Each year millions of pheasants are released on British game estates for shooting. Pheasants are a non-native species in Britain and their survival in the wild depends on releases - about 75% of estates release reared pheasants each year because the proportion of wild birds breeding is negligible.

There have been several studies on fox predation on pheasants in Britain but most of them look at predation while the birds are in the release pens; limited information is available on predation post-release. Some studies are based on questionnaires surveys on fox predation, others are based on actual losses of pheasants to fox predation and some others have looked at the economics of fox control.

Studies based on questionnaires

Based on 59 respondents to a questionnaire survey on fox predation of pheasants in release pens, fox predation is perceived as a minor problem in the majority of cases. About 36% of all respondents to the questionnaire reported no losses of pheasants to foxes. Perceived losses of pheasants from release pens averaged about 1% but some high loss levels were also reported (up to 13%).

Studies based on actual pheasant losses

A red fox on snowA study on the impacts of buzzards on released pheasants in southern England also looked at the effect of fox predation on pheasants. This study showed that predation by foxes caused about 3% of pheasant losses whilst buzzard predation accounted for about 4%.

More released pheasants were killed at sites where release protocols were poor. For example, certain pen features and release factors made it easy for predators to kill the pheasants. In another study losses to foxes were more likely to occur where more birds were released and where overall, more birds died. From both these studies it appears that poor management led to higher losses to foxes and other predators.

Only one study looked at the fate of 325 pheasants after they were released from the pens. On average, 75% of birds survived to the start of the shooting season in October/November. Once shooting started 37.5% of pheasants were shot, 13% were predated or scavenged by predators, mainly foxes, and a further 7% died of other causes. About 15% of birds were alive at the end of the shooting season.

Another study that investigated fox predation on a farm in southern England found that rabbits comprised 74% of fox diet and pheasants only 5%. Even so, the impact on pheasant populations was likely to be substantial as fox predation was mainly concentrated in spring, when female pheasants rearing their chicks are more vulnerable. However, the study showed that immigration of reared pheasants from nearby shooting estates fully compensated for fox predation.

Economics of fox predation

A flock of lambs under a tree and a shepardBased on the responses to a questionnaire survey on pheasant predation by foxes, there was no link between the expenditure on fox control and the number of pheasants lost. The economic costs of losses to foxes are unclear. However, in shooting estates where reared pheasants are released, gamekeepers expended less effort trapping predators than in estates where shooting relies on wild birds.

Where there are localised problems, fox control by shooting can effectively increase autumn game populations. In shooting estates where reared birds are released, more birds can be released to compensate for losses to foxes and other predators.

References

  • Baker, P.J., Furlong, M.J., Southern, S. & Harris, S. (2006) The potential impact of red fox predation in agricultural landscapes in lowland Britain. Wildlife Biology 12, 39-50.
  • Baker, P., Harris, S. & White, P.C.L. (2006) After the hunt - the future for foxes in Britain. International Fund for Animal Welfare, London.

Download After the hunt. (PDF file, 1.7 Mb). Available with permission from IFAW

  • Kenward, R.E., Hall, D.G., Walls, S.S. & Hodder, K.H. (2001) Factors affecting predation by buzzards Buteo buteo on released pheasants Phasianus colchicus. Journal of Applied Ecology 38, 813-822.
  • McDonald, R.A. & Harris, S. (1999) The use of trapping records to monitor populations of stoats Mustela erminea and weasels M. nivalis: the importance of trapping effort. Journal of Applied Ecology 36, 679-688.
  • Moberly, R.L., White, P.C.L. & Harris, S. (2002) The costs of foxes to agricultural interests in Britain. Report to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Southwater, West Sussex.
  • Turner, C. & Sage, R. (2003) Fate of released pheasants. The Game Conservancy Trust Review 35, 74-75.