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Wildlife Camera » Bleak future for the Grey partridge?

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Bleak future for the Grey partridge?

31 July 2007

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Grey partridges

Partridge chicks don’t like the rain. In fact, most of them die if they don’t get some warm, dry weather at the end of June.

This year has seen the wettest summer weather since detailed records began and things are not looking good for the Grey partridge. There used to be a million of them in the shires in Edwardian times, but today there are probably no more than 80,000.

Perdix perdix is one of the most intensively studied birds in England. The population figures and game books show a steady decline over the years as modern agriculture has shrunk their landscape. And as their numbers have gone down, the game-shooting emphasis has switched to the pheasant, which responds more positively to the rear-and-release management preferred by business-led shooting syndicates. Specialist partridge keepers have been sacked and the little brown bird has struggled.

It used to be said that a wet week at Ascot meant a poor start to the shooting season, which opened with partridges on September 1. This year it rained before, during and after the Ascot race meeting, but most partridge shooting had already been cancelled. Very few “partridge manors”, once a feature of England’s downland counties, now produce bags of this highly-prized gamebird. There are a few Red-legged partridges but not many of the native Greys.

The Game Conservancy continues to show optimism, however, despite the fact that the Grey partridge is hovering on the brink of extinction over much of the country.

Total wash-out
“The wet summer has been a total wash-out for young partridge chicks struggling for survival and urgent conservation action needs to be taken by all those with a responsibility for managing the British countryside,” warned Dr Nick Sotherton, head of research with the trust.

Dr Sotherton said studies showed the importance of predator control. A six-year experiment on Salisbury Plain showed that control increased Grey partridge breeding stock in spring by 35 per cent each year and resulted in an increased number of birds in August by 75 per cent each year.

“Without the right sort of habitat, partridges and their young have nowhere to hide and are therefore extremely vulnerable to predation,” he said.

The trust, which is lead partner in the Government’s Biodiversity Action Plan for the grey partridge, has devised a five-point plan to save the bird.

The plan includes creating suitable habitat for a bird that needs both nesting and brood-rearing cover; tackling predators; providing winter food; counting birds; and limiting the use of sprays. - Willy Newlands (The following is an article which appeared previously in The Field).“The grey partridge is unique among gamebirds in that it thrives in areas where intensive agriculture is the dominant land use.”That optimistic assessment was published in a US Fish and Wildlife Service study in 1984. And the Hungarian partridge or “Hun”, as American hunters call this import from Europe, still thrives over much of the prairie states and northward into Canada.

But in its European heartlands and in the soft climate of the British Isles, at the westward end of its native range, Perdix perdix is not doing so well. In fact, the species is looking desperately sick, in total contrast to the upbeat picture from the prairies and also from Central Asia.

So game managers are asking: is it worth persevering with the grey partridge in this country, and can changes in the EC farming support system really throw a lifeline to this great little gamebird? Depending on who is answering the question,  the verdict varies.

Mike Raven, of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), has doubts about the official Biodiversity Action Plan to double grey partridge numbers by 2010. “That would require a bit of luck and good fortune, I would think. Numbers have dropped by 39 per cent since 1994,  and between 2002 and 2003, the population dropped by 25 per cent. The bird is not doomed to extinction perhaps, but numbers have fallen enormously over the last three years and it is one of those species that we are most concerned about.

“We try to produce trends for regions of the country but now the grey partridge has become too scarce for us to do that. There does not seem to be a great deal of variation around the country, numbers in Scotland are going down similarly. In Wales they are very, very rare and may become extinct.

Going down
“Certainly in farmland areas on shooting estates where the habitat is managed for them, numbers have stayed reasonably good, and a lot of partridges breed now in non-farming habitats, like Salisbury Plain. Hopefully with some of these agri-environment schemes coming along, that will help, but doubling numbers by 2010 is optimistic – maybe another ten years on top of that.”

In the early seventies, the BTO reckoned there were half a million breeding pairs. “Now we are looking at 75,000 pairs. It would be hard to find any other species that has gone down that much.”

The grey partridge started its retreat in the British Isles as long ago as the 1890s, when its numbers in Ireland began to fall. The foxes and crows, the weeds and the farmyard manure, were all just the same as they had been for years, but the Irish partridge bags dropped away steadily. Gradually the dots on the distribution maps grew more and more scattered. And the decline spread to mainland Britain.

By tradition, the weather was to blame. The received wisdom was that a wet Ascot Week in June was a knockout blow for partridge numbers. If her ladyship’s flowered hat came back from Ascot sodden and tattered, the head keeper could quietly downgrade the double-gun partridge days in September and October. Although some chilled broods might be replaced by re-nesting, the result was never going to be the same.

According to many of today’s new recruits to the science of partridge management, there’s no need to worry about the weather. All you need for a big stock is the right farming technique. The blame for the bird’s present plight, they say, lies with ten years of bad directives from Brussels. Now these evil rules are being swept away and the golden days for Perdix lie ahead.

Dr. Dick Potts, who has spent 38 years working on partridges, says: “The future depends entirely what people put into it. There is ample proof that if people want partridges – and they do the sort of management we have been prescribing for a long time – they won’t have any problem. The difficulty is that they usually want to compromise. They want to manage the place for both pheasants and partridges, which is incredibly difficult, and there is a big difficulty in reconciling the commercial shoots that have grown up in the absence of wild birds to the idea of restoring those wild birds again.

Tide has turned
“I think, if you look into the future, you will see some places in the countryside with wonderful habitat and superb populations of partridges, just like they were in the 19th century, and other places with none at all.

“By and large, the Action Plan targets are going to help. The only thing I can see which might raise problems, and I don’t think it is such a big problem as it used to be, is the acceptability of predation control. Among people who are interested in birds in general, the tide has turned there now. Farmland is quite different from managing pristine habitats. We’ve got to control the predators, the “legal” predators. And getting the habitat right is absolutely crucial.

“If we can’t restore the partridge in line with the Biodiversity Action Plans then I think it is a bad mark against all of us. People will say, what’s the point of it all?”

Asked if he believes the sweeping changes in agricultural policy will make a real difference, Dr. Potts says: “I think they could. It depends what people do with their single farm payment. For some, it might lead to a return to dog-and-stick farming – you’re not going to get partridges that way. Some farmers will go steaming on, using insecticides five or six times a year – they won’t have any partridges either. But in between, I think you have an opportunity for people to say: now I’ve got this money in the bank, I can farm the place the way I want to.

“I think a lot of light-land farms on the Wolds, the sandy and chalk bits of Norfolk, the Sussex Downs, have a better prospect now of restoring their partridges.”

Looking at the current season, he says: “It rained at the end of June. It was wet and cold, and everybody virtually gave up. But the people who’ve got their habitats right have got the partridges. If you’ve got a hundred-acre field of thick, wet wheat, there is absolutely no escape for partridges. Death is the only way out. But if you’ve got strips of beetle banks and conservation headlands, they can do really well. They are quite resilient birds actually.

“The bottom line in all this – and I think by and large the science is done – is to turn the words into birds,”

Fill the sponge
Game manager John Phillips, of Doune, Perthshire, says: “We’ve got to restock. We’ve got to get some means of filling the sponge up with sufficient birds in really good habitat that can re-establish themselves against the well-known yardstick of 35 per cent loss – 17.5 per cent lost to farming, 17.5 per cent lost to vermin, even on keepered places.

“The second thing is that you are going to have to get a derogation against sparrowhawks. There are 50,000 pairs of sparrowhawks and we are never going to get anywhere until we have rational management of these excessive populations of predatory birds, and predators generally.”

Edward Darling, of the Game Conservancy, says: “With habitat provision, the 150,000 pair target for grey partridges is possible, and numbers could treble to 900,000 with keepering. That’s the national picture, but it ultimately comes down to individuals to engage in the fight and the Trust is putting this into practice on its site at Royston in Hertfordshire.

“It has been proved, time and time again, that the highest numbers of partridges and farmland birds are found where there is predator control. A small amount of keepering will have a dramatic benefit where there is good habitat but thinly stretched keepers working over poor habitat for partridges will struggle to deliver.

“We should shift the blame for the past ten years of decline firmly on to European policy rather than our custody of the countryside. The challenge for everyone in the countryside over the next ten years is to rectify the mess that politicians have made previously.”

Julian Hughes, Head of Species Conservation with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, says: “There’s a lot to play for here. The opportunities that will come in with environmental stewardship next year will give encouragement not just to those who already want to do something about the state of grey partridges but will also enable and encourage a whole load of other people who up to now have not given thought to looking after birds on their farmland.

“The whole balance of farming policy and farming payments is changing so much that frankly if farmers and landowners do not recognise some of the wider things that people are expecting them to deliver for their payments – partridges, skylarks, tree sparrows and all the others – then there is not going to be public support for farming in the future. I think the changing system will actually encourage people – force people, perhaps – to think about grey partridges and other farmland birds.”

The optimism that has endlessly buoyed up partridge enthusiasts is typified by the Game Conservancy’s latest plan. A Swiss expert has been hired to show English keepers how to foster pen-reared broods on to barren wild pairs. This technique has been practised off and on for more than a century with little success — but perhaps its time has come.

The verdict I usually quote came from my local beat keeper, Jimmy Loudon. As he used to tell me: “Pheasants will test your temper, but partridges will break your heart.” - Willy Newlands (copyright) (Photo of Grey partridges in winter, copyright iStockphoto)

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