Dr Dave Parish: Now we will learn if Grey Partridges have reaped the benefits of our work

This is an exciting period for the EU's North Sea Region PARTRIDGE project as we approach harvest time on our demonstration farms. This is when we find out how the Grey Partridges have fared this year and how many chicks have been produced '“ crucial in the yearly cycle of this species.

The Grey Partridge.  Picture: Peter Thompson
The Grey Partridge. Picture: Peter Thompson

The PARTRIDGE project involves ten partners from Scotland, England, Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands, all working together to improve the habitats on ten demonstration sites, to show what can be done to help the Grey Partridge and thereby farmland biodiversity in general.

Most of the habitat improvements being introduced on all sites are focused on a new type of cover crop developed in Germany but adapted locally. This comprises a large mix of perennial, biennial and annual plants sown in large blocks or wide strips. Half of the crop is cut each year in an alternating fashion so that there is always some taller, thicker cover in which birds can nest and hide, alongside shorter, more open cover that is better for chicks to hunt for insects.

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The large size of these habitats is crucial because research shows us that nesting success of the Grey Partridge is higher in strips wider than ten metres rather than in narrower strips because predators find it harder to locate nests.

Dr Dave Parish, Senior Scientist, Scottish Lowland Research, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust

Most of the demonstration sites have already started adding these crops and we are all preparing to start counting the Grey Partridge to see if they have helped. This will be done once harvest is under way by slowly driving around stubble fields at dawn and dusk when the birds are usually most active, searching for the family groups, or coveys.

By working out how many adult males and females there are, plus chicks, we can get an insight into their overall breeding success and adult survival rates when we combine the data with those from spring when pairs were surveyed.

Here in Scotland, GWCT has been working with Balgonie Estate in Fife and Whitburgh Farms in Midlothian, where new cropping has been sown this year and is looking good.

Unfortunately, we have also had some very heavy rain coinciding with periods when we would expect young chicks to be on the ground, which is never good because the chicks are vulnerable to chilling.

Dr Dave Parish, Senior Scientist, Scottish Lowland Research, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust

We are still keeping everything crossed and hoping for the best as you can never know for sure what the season has been like until you get out after harvest and do the counts.

If anyone with access to farmland would like to count Grey Partridge to find out about their local populations, please get in touch with GWCT via our website (gwct.org.uk – Partridge Count Scheme) as we can not only help with guidance but the feedback we provide from your data is often invaluable in highlighting what may be holding back your birds.

The PARTRIDGE project is using the Grey Partridge as a model species because we know that so many other species share its requirements, but we are still monitoring many other farmland species too so that we can illustrate the wider benefits to biodiversity of this kind of management.

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Ultimately, we hope to persuade policy makers to provide better support to farmers for managing the land to benefit wildlife – especially important in the UK in light of Brexit, but also in our partner countries in Europe where they have similar problems of declining farmland wildlife and support mechanisms that aren’t always as helpful as they might be.

Dr Dave Parish, Senior Scientist, Scottish Lowland Research, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust