Sidney Keyes was one of a number of potentially major poets killed in action in the Second World War. He died in North Africa in April 1943, aged 20. One of his poems is called ‘The Pheasant’, in which he celebrates this “stubble-searching haunter of autumn hedgerows” and its loud “metallic summons”.
This year, we have seen more pheasants up here than ever before. We open the gate and a harem of females takes flight from the gravel. Males dive into the wildflower field at our approach. We hear them rasping from the undergrowth. Blenheim is awash with them. But it is difficult, even while admiring their colourful splendour or chuckling at their comical speed-walking, to share Sidney Keyes’s celebration of them.
According the British Trust for Ornithology, the pheasant is “easily the most common bird wandering in the UK countryside and the species most often shot by humans”. Whether or not people enjoy, or disapprove of, shooting game birds is not itself the concern of this Note from the North. However, pheasants are a non-native bird originally from Asia. Most of them are reared from imported eggs and chicks. Tens of millions are released each year, consuming “untold numbers of invertebrates and plants”. They are an invasive species that we repeatedly invite into our countryside, where they severely disrupt the balance of local ecosystems.
Nearly 350 years ago, the British sugar merchant and early vegetarian, Thomas Tryon, wrote a work with the catchy title, ‘The Complaints of the Birds and Fowls of Heaven to their Creator for the Oppressions and Violences Most Nations on the Earth do Offer Them’. Maybe we should import and release far fewer pheasants.
Remembrance Sunday approaches. It was a Canadian, John MacCrae, who raised the poppy to its symbolic status with his 1915 poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. He had been poisoned in a gas attack at Ypres, and eventually succumbed to pneumonia and meningitis in January 1918, while serving as a military doctor. Another promising poet of the First World War, Isaac Rosenberg, was 28 when he was killed in the same year, at Arras. Less well known is the reference to a poppy in his poem ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, published in 1916:
The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.