I recently found myself on a hill in Bedfordshire at dawn, looking through a fence onto a narrow track that parted an area of woodland. It was dawn in April, cold and windy, and it was my eighth hour, involving three visits, staring in anticipation along this line of grass. I first heard it calling as dawn broke and my expectations rose, but then nothing but silence for a further three hours. Then it appeared, on the brow of the hill. For twenty seconds it was there, and it was beautiful; but then it was gone, and I probably won’t ever see one again.
It was a male Lady Amherst’s Pheasant, or a ‘Lady A’, as they have become known.
The Lady A is one of the most spectacular of British Birds. The males’ plumage is a concoction of colours - red, blue, yellow, white, silver, black, green and orange feathers - but arranged in a way that is subtle rather than gaudy, as pleasing to the human eye as it must appear to the much drabber females. A beautiful cape of white feathers hangs behind the pheasant’s head. The most noticeable feature bobs along behind it; the tail is made up of several very long black and silver feathers, stretching almost three feet to the rear.
Not surprisingly, given their plumage, Lady Amherst’s Pheasants are not native to the UK, but to South-west China and Burma. The name commemorates the wife of William Pitt Amherst, the Governor-General of India from 1823. The first specimen was sent to London in the 1820’s, although reputedly it didn’t survive the ordeal of being shipped around the world. However, others did survive subsequent journeys and small releases of the birds took place locally into the British countryside. They took to their new habitat, and for a period of time thrived, particularly in small areas of Bedfordshire.
Although Lady A’s are an introduced species, in some areas they developed self-sustaining populations and were promoted to full ‘British Bird’ status, making them a desirable target for birdwatchers.
Despite their significant size and their interesting plumage, Lady A’s are very difficult to see, preferring to forage in dense shrubs, and in the UK often in sensitive areas with no public access. Over the past few decades only those ‘in the know’ have been lucky enough to see them. Many have paid good money to be guided to the secret sites, and no doubt left very happy.
Depletion of the pheasants’ existing habitats, and an increase in the number of foxes, are both thought to have contributed to the Lady A’s decline. One theory is that gamekeepers are partly responsible for reducing their numbers, culling them due to their habit of flying low or even running when flushed - a low flying pheasant could prove fatal with a group of trigger-happy shooters discharging shotguns at low angles.
While some non-native introductions of birds and mammals have been problematic, the Lady A’s presence in the British countryside has been a relatively uneventful one, often simply providing a momentary pleasure to those whose paths they have crossed.
The Lady A is a secretive bird now destined to slip away as quietly as it has existed here. The last few years have resulted in fewer and fewer sightings of Lady Amherst’s Pheasants. From only a handful of birds noted three years ago it is now thought that only a single male bird remains at a specific site in Bedfordshire. Earlier this year, the location was released publicly to avoid over-enthusiastic searches – trespassing – at its location, which is actually a private site but can be viewed from a public footpath.
For some birders, the release of news of its location presents an opportunity to tick off the only unseen bird that featured in their childhood ‘Shell Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland’. For other lifelong birders it is simply the chance to see a bird they thought they would never experience in the UK. The day I saw the last Lady A, among the small crowd waiting was a couple who had travelled from Germany in an attempt to get a glimpse. After cursing the British weather for a few hours, they left with a smile on their faces.
Although it only lasted a few moments on that cold April morning, I felt privileged to see a bird that could become extinct in the UK at any time. The remaining bird is assumed to be very old. Sadly its eventual demise will bring to an end a colourful addition to our landscape over the past two centuries.
If you wish to see the last Lady A, you will probably have to be patient. The directions are:
Park in Lidlington village, Bedfordshire, near the Church. Cross the road and walk through the churchyard to the fence. Turn right and follow the path by the fence uphill for 100 metres. Continue along the fence turning left. After 200 meters, at the top of a few steps, you will see the ride through the fence on your left. When it appears, the pheasant tends to walk along the gap at the top of the ride.