There was some fuss early in 2015 over the sighting of a splendidly plumaged Lady Amherst’s Pheasant in woodland near Lidlington, Bedfordshire. Why? Because this “Lady A” was allegedly the last remaining specimen of the species in the wild in Britain.
Twitchers were falling over each other to add the UK’s only authentic Lady A to their personal lists of British species before the lonesome bird bit (pecked?) the dust — although, for all we know, this handsome male may have had a harem of hens nearby, since the drab lady Lady A looks much like a female Common Pheasant.
Personally I cannot get too excited about the possible demise of the Lady A. Like the Common Pheasant and the rare Golden Pheasant and Reeves’s Pheasant, it is not a native of Britain. It is a 19th century introduction from Asia, where it is not under threat but remains widespread and common in south-west China and Burma.
The bird was given its English name in honour of Sarah, Countess Amherst, whose hubby, the first Earl Amherst, sent a specimen to London in 1828, when he was Governor General of Bengal. Unfortunately, Lord Amherst's bird did not survive the journey, but the gaudy plumage of the male Lady A later made it popular with Victorian collectors.
The male is certainly a colourful bird. On a YouTube video you can see a beautiful captive specimen being tormented (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wIGHtrtL1Io).
Not surprisingly, some Lady A pheasants escaped from captivity or were deliberately released into the wild. Small populations became established in several wooded areas of England and Wales, and the birding boffins eventually admitted it to the official list of British species. But then a decline began, perhaps because of increased predation by foxes, and the loss of the species from the UK has been on the cards for some time.
A few years ago, The Independent hilariously compared the potential demise of the UK’s Lady A to the extinction of the Great Auk in 1840: “Unless it can find a previously unsighted mate, and breeds successfully, Lady Amherst’s will become the first bird species since the Great Auk to be lost from the British countryside.”
This comparison is ludicrous for two major reasons. First, the Great Auk, as a bird of the open seas, was never to be found in “the British countryside”. More importantly, the Great Auk was a native British bird that was completely wiped from the face of the Earth, whereas the Lady A is an artificially introduced species that still thrives in its natural Asian habitat.
Other birds threatened with extinction in Britain, such as the Red Kite, White-tailed Eagle and Chough, have made a comeback to former haunts through reintroduction programmes, but there are no such plans for the Lady A because the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 prohibits the release of non-native species into the wild.
However, the Lady A may reappear anyway. Look on a website such as poultryads.co.uk or birdtrader.co.uk and you will see that the species is still being bred in the UK for private collectors. Several sightings in recent years have clearly been escapes rather than remnants of the naturalised feral population, and it is highly likely that more birds will abscond into the countryside — to the consternation of twitchers, who can add a tick to their lists only if convinced that a rare bird is truly wild rather than a “plastic fantastic”.