The grey partridge was originally a bird of temperate steppe grasslands. It has adapted readily to open arable landscapes and, accordingly, vastly expanded its range as agricultural development spread westwards across Europe over the last eight millennia. After the last Ice Age, the grey partridge arrived naturally in Britain.
The combination of land enclosure, increased cultivation and intensive predator control in the 18th and especially the 19th century boosted its numbers considerably and it became the most popular sporting quarry of the last century. Bag records show that the largest numbers were shot between 1870 and 1930, during which period around two million grey partridges were killed annually.
The same bag records indicate that, after the Second World War, the numbers of grey partridges dropped by 80% in 40 years. Our research has established three main causes for the decline:
- Chick survival rates fell from an average of 45% to under 30% between 1952 and 1962. In the first weeks of life, grey partridge chicks feed almost exclusively on insects to obtain the proteins needed for rapid growth. The introduction of herbicides in the early 1950s eliminated many crop weeds that were insect food plants and, by the 1980s, the number of chick food insects in cereals had fallen by at least 75%. Although the drop in chick survival rates was partially compensated by lower over-winter losses, it reduced autumn stocks sufficiently to upset the economics of game management.
- Many gamekeepers either lost their jobs or turned towards pheasant rearing, resulting in less predator control and an increase in predation during the nesting season, leading to more hen and nest losses.
- In some areas the situation was exacerbated by the removal of grassy nesting cover as fields were enlarged by removing hedgerows and field boundaries.
These findings have been confirmed by separate experiments showing that where predators are controlled, chick food insects restored and nesting cover replanted, grey partridge density increases.
A range of factsheets on grey partridge conservation and population recovery are available in for download in PDF format. If you have any grey partridges on your land we would urge you to join our Partridge Count Scheme. We also support a network of regional grey partridge groups that hold demonstrations and field visits organised by our advisory and research staff. In addition to this our training team organises courses providing useful and practical information on grey partridge management and conservation.