Outdoors: Wing and a prayer

A grey partridge: "Its future wellbeing really is in our hands"
A grey partridge: "Its future wellbeing really is in our hands"
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THE STRANGE creaking call of the dumpy partridge used to be a common feature of the British countryside. Thomas Coward in his classic work Birds of the British Isles, first published in 1920, stated that the call “cannot be expressed by any combination of letters”, but more tellingly perhaps, he also wrote that the partridge is “too familiar to need much description”.

Such words have a hollow ring today with grey partridge numbers at only a fraction of their size compared with the halcyon days at the end of the 19th century when the birds were incredibly common and shot in their millions. It is estimated that the current Scottish population is less than one per cent of the numbers regularly shot around 100 years ago. The partridge, it would seem, is in terminal decline.

This fall in numbers has been a long drawn-out process and can be first traced back to the end of the First World War when the number of men returning to the land dwindled, which also resulted in there being fewer gamekeepers to control predators. The end of the Second World War hastened the process, but it was the advent of modern farming techniques in the 1960s and 1970s that really sent the fall into overdrive.

The main reason for this catastrophic decline, according to Dr Dave Parish, senior scientist with the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), is down to the reliance of partridge chicks on insects to feed upon in the crucial early days after hatching. The preferred nesting areas for partridges are at the base of hedges by field edges where there is plenty of herbaceous vegetation.

“Partridge chicks need plenty of insects to feed upon so that they can grow properly,” he says. “Unfortunately new and more efficient farming techniques that often depend upon the use of agri-chemicals have dramatically reduced insect populations along the field edges of arable farms where partridges like to nest. The partridge is now in real trouble and this is why it has been placed on the red list of conservation concern.”

In some areas the situation has been exacerbated by the removal of grassy nesting cover as fields were enlarged by removing hedgerows and field boundaries. A lack of control on predators such as foxes and crows has also played a significant role in the decline of the bird.

So, what can be done? “The good news is that the partridge is one of the most studied birds in the UK, which means we know an awful lot about its key requirements and the kind of measures that can be implemented to reverse the decline,” says Dr Parish. “Since the end of the 1980s we have developed techniques such as the use of ‘conservation headlands’ where farmers are encouraged to selectively spray the outer portions of their fields so that there are areas of the field edge where there are wild plants that have healthy insect populations to support partridges.”

Agri-support initiatives are also currently available to encourage farmers to sow specific plants along field edges that are beneficial to partridges. The forthcoming reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and its commitment to green initiatives could also play an important role by providing new environmental support schemes.

In Scotland, GWCT is spearheading an innovative research project at Whitburgh Farms in Midlothian, which aims to demonstrate how best practice grey partridge management can benefit both the birds and overall biodiversity, whilst at the same time ensure profitable and sustainable farming. Similar schemes in England have shown that partridge numbers can be significantly increased.

So, whilst the partridge is a bird hanging on a knife-edge, there is hope that its fortunes could be turned around if the appropriate land management techniques are adopted.

“The future of the partridge in Scotland is still very much in the balance but I believe there are more positives than negatives,” says Dr Parish. “It is one of our iconic species and its future wellbeing really is in our hands. Our farmlands just wouldn’t be the same if the partridge was to disappear for good.”