Fishing and shooting: ‘Partridge chicks have to be transferred to barren wild birds’

To Hampshire in my smartest lightweight tweeds for partridge shooting, only to discover the day has been cancelled.

I had been warned. But by that stage the non-refundable plane tickets had been bought and it seemed silly not to use them. So a weekend in Hampshire admiring the rain and drinking gin beckoned.

This was the second day this season my brother, who is supposedly in charge of the local shoot syndicate, has cancelled, thanks to the late harvest (it is always gratifying to discover that they have rubbish harvests down there too. I always imagine it is endlessly balmy).

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The difficulty has been that in any other year the wheat crop that covers two of the eight possible drives would have been harvested at least six weeks ago. The partridges once let out of their pens into the wild would normally have plenty of time to acclimatise, spread themselves out a bit, get in some flying practice and tuck into all the fallen grain left over by the combine.

This year the combining had been going on far later than usual, leaving no time for them to get their bearings after being released from their pens on the fringe of the crop. So the first two days’ shooting had to be cancelled.

I asked, rather stupidly, why the birds couldn’t be let out anyway before the harvest to scurry about in the crop (they don’t after all have their pens in the crop) and was told that combine drivers don’t stop when they see a young partridge fleeing through the stalks and the attrition rate among young birds can be horrendous – QED you have to wait until the field is clear before letting them out.

I should add that these were red legged partridges, which are far easier to rear than the depleted native grey partridge, and consequently able to be reared annually like pheasants. The grey is a far more delicate bird that seldom survives the winter if reared like a red.

If you are serious about greys – there is a huge research programme being run by the Game and Conservation Trust – you have to find bantams to become surrogate mothers and then transfer the chicks to barren pairs of partridges in the wild. That’s one way. There are several others. But you can see that re-stocking the countryside with greys is not quite the same as shoving red leg eggs into incubators and letting them out when they are 
big enough.

Greys don’t even like the same sort of feed as red legs, although I am told you can encourage reared greys to peck at pellets (they prefer insects) by mixing a handful of hundreds and thousands – the cake decoration – in the feed. Don’t ask. But it seems to work.