Rotherfield Game Restoration Project

Creating a blueprint for restoring game and other wildlife on profitable mixed farmland

Rotherfield ParkUnlike at our previous grey partridge demonstration site at Royston, where increased pheasant and red-legged partridge production arose as a by–product of intensive grey partridge management, the Rotherfield Demonstration Project (2010-2017) aims to illustrate the benefit of intensive game management for the full spectrum of game and other wildlife present on the area. Focused habitat improvements and modern-day game management (all-year legal predation control and winter/spring feeding) are not only aimed at increasing spring densities and productivity of game , but also a wide range of other species such as lapwing, farmland and woodland songbirds and butterflies, all of which are monitored.

Background

Extending to 1,331ha (3,289 acres), the Rotherfield demonstration area, located in East Hampshire, is characterised by mixed farmland under family ownership. At the beginning of the project in 2010, the area was covered by 433ha (1,070 acres) of well-managed ancient semi-natural woodland, 279ha (690 acres) of grassland and 619ha (1,529 acres) of cropped land on medium clay loam. The main crops cultivated in 2010 were winter wheat (330ha), winter barley (70ha), winter oats (63ha), winter oilseed rape (74ha) and maize (61ha). The grassland area is managed for the farm’s cattle herd (389 dairy cows, 148 dairy replacement cows, 5 bulls and 52 beef animals). Additionally, 96ha (237 acres) were non-cropped conservation areas managed under ELS and the Country Stewardship Scheme.

The estate’s game books date back to the 1840s and reveal a fascinating insight into the history of game shooting in that part of the world. In summary, these records show how numerous grey partridges must have been up to the 1900s and how they steadily declined until their extinction in the 1990s. Once extinct, the estate briefly switched to the release of red-legged partridges. At the same time, a relatively large number of pheasants was released to increase the shooting bag. However, in 2004 the estate decided to stop releasing altogether and to convert to a wild bird shoot, based on 4-6 days per season. This abrupt management change resulted in much reduced bags owing to less stock, low breeding success, difficulty in driving wild birds over the guns.

Habitat enhancements

To increase the amount and quality of the habitat improvements for game and other wildlife and to improve the spatial distribution of these enhancements, the estate entered a comprehensive Higher Level Scheme agreement (HLS) in spring 2012. Table 1 highlights the most beneficial habitat improvements that are already in place, in comparison with the targets planned for the next six years. Particular emphasis has been put on high-quality nesting, brood-rearing and escape cover, which we seek to increase from 20.2ha at project begin to 30.3ha (74.9 acres), and the management of species-rich grassland from 2.6ha to 25.2ha (62.3 acres). In regard of the woodland management, which was already of high standard, additional targeted woodland edge management is on-going under HLS together with the widening of existing rides. Furthermore, the farm has abolished block cropping from 2011.

Table 1: Existing and target habitat enhancements at Rotherfield (HLS option codes provided where applicable)

Habitat Total 2010 (ha) Target (ha)
Beetle banks (HF7) 2.3 1.6
Enhanced wild bird seed mix margins (HF12) 9.8 22.8
Conservation headlands with no fertilizers (HF14) 5.0 0
Cultivated arable margins for rare arable weeds (HF20) 2.1 2.6
Pollen and nectar mix (HF4) 1.0 3.3
Total high-quality nesting, brood rearing and escape cover 20.2 30.3
 
Grass margins (HE1-3) 25.4 14.5
Floristically enhanced grass strips (HE10) 0.6 8.6
Total grass margins 26.0 23.1
 
Restoration of species-rich semi-natural grassland (HK7) 2.1 2.1
Creation of species-rich semi-natural grassland (HK8) 0.5 8.0
Restoration of grassland for target features (HK16) 0.0 6.9
Creation of grassland for target species (HK17) 0.0 6.1
Maintenance of species-rich grassland (HK15) 0.0 2.1
Total species-rich grassland 2.6 25.2
 
Over-wintered stubble (HF6) 65.0 70.0
Extended over-wintered stubbles (left until August. HF22) 28.0 30.0
Total stubbles 93.0 100.0
 
Uncropped cultivated areas (lapwing plots, HF13) 2.0 2.0
Field corner management (HF1) 24.3 32.7
Arable reversion (HD7) 6.1 4.6
 
Total 174.2 217.9

 

Game recovery strategy for Rotherfield

To reach a point where sustainable shooting can take place, wild game recovery in general and grey partridge re-establishment in particular depends not only on thorough habitat management but also on thorough predation control. To guarantee maximum effect, predation control must focus on the March-July period to ensure maximum breeding success. At Rotherfield, the predators whose numbers are controlled are foxes, mustelids, rats and corvids.

Keepers who rear substantial numbers of gamebirds for release typically find such focused predator control difficult. Also, the release of red-legged partridges reduces the chances of grey partridge recovery, owing to accidental shooting and disturbance. As a consequence, no red-legged partridges are released during the recovery years at Rotherfield. Fortunately, the same does not apply to the releasing of pheasants – particularly cocks. Providing that gamekeeping effort remains focused on intensive predator control in the spring and summer, moderate levels of pheasant shooting based on released birds is compatible with wild game recovery.

Between five to ten years are needed for wild game recovery, a process during which shooting returns are typically low. Most shoot owners will reasonably require some guaranteed shooting to justify the investment in gamekeeping. A minimum of three to five days’ shooting with a pheasant bag of around 100 on the main driven days could give many employers a much needed incentive to maintain a keeper in his job. In order to achieve these bags during the recovery process, some sensible releasing needs to take place. Part of the Rotherfield demonstration is to identify optimal levels of release that are compatible with wild bird recovery. We therefore release 600 well-feathered game-farm reared cock pheasant poults from movable pens (150 per release location) during late July/early August annually, until a time when these bag numbers can be achieved through wild pheasant production alone.

At Rotherfield, two gamekeepers are managing the 3,600-acre (1,457-hectare) estate, which has been split into an Estate side and a Trust side, the latter being managed by the GWCT’s keeper, Malcolm Brockless.

Monitoring

2010 was our baseline year during which we established extensive monitoring schemes for all species of gamebirds occurring at Rotherfield together with woodcock, lapwing and songbirds. Grey partridge monitoring started in 2004.

1) Pheasants

Counting wild pheasants is generally difficult. At Rotherfield, owing to large woodland areas and an increasing amount of wild bird seed cover counting is a yearly challenge. The data presented here therefore needs to be read as general trends or minimum numbers and are not real population size numbers. Since 2010 when systematic counting of pheasants began, the number of hens has increased by 34% and that of the wild young more than doubled, despite a temporary setback in spring 2013 after the bad breeding season in 2012, the wettest since records began. 600 cock pheasants are being released annually on the Trust side since 2011 and hence the 66% increase in cock pheasants is a combination of an increase in wild cocks together with released cocks that survived the shooting season.

2) Grey partridge

In 2004, when standardised monitoring of grey partridges began, no individuals were found neither in spring nor in autumn. Since then greys have steadily increased, initially as a result of releases undertaken as part of our re-introduction experiment which assessed the best releasing methods for the re-establishment of the species (see ‘Guidelines for the re-establishing of grey partridges through releasing’). This resulted in the first three broods for two decades in autumn 2009 (Table 2). A major setback hit the project in 2012 owing to the wettest summer in 100 years and consequently only one brood fledged young despite 30 previously translocated birds in winter 2011/12.

In 2013 things were starting to look better, with six broods fledged, and in 2014 we managed to break the 100 mark with an autumn stock of a minimum of 108 birds (11 broods produced 74 young), of which 15% were survivors of reared-released birds before autumn 2013 and 85% wild. Owing to the extent of extinction within the area, immigration of dispersing partridges has not been recorded to date.

Table 2: Game recovery at Rotherfield across the whole estate, 3,600 acres. Reared grey partridges were either fostered or released in coveys between August and December; wild = wild translocated partridges (three coveys in December 2011, five pairs in January 2012, one barren pair and two coveys in October 2014); and cock pheasants in groups of 50 from movable pens in early August (released on Trust side only)

Year Spring pairs Autumn adults Wild broods Wild young Birds released
Grey partridge
2004 0 0 0 0
2005 8 12 0 0
2006 8 7 0 0
2007 10 11 0 0
2008 4 9 3 4
2009 15 16 3 20
2010 24 24 2 19 133 (all reared)
2011 20 27 5 13 81 (20 wild)
2012 22 24 1 6 72 (10 wild)
2013 18 18 6 40 68 (all reared)
2014 24 34 11 74 14 wild

 

Year Spring pairs Autumn adults Wild broods Wild young Birds released
Red-legged partridge
2008 ? 41 1 3 0
2009 17 28 1 4 0
2010 35 45 12 54 0
2011 41 71 12 51 0
2012 58 60 1 2 0
2013 34 54 12 34 0
2014 53 89 20 80 0

 

Pheasants
Year Spring adults Autumn adults** Wild broods Wild young Birds released
  cocks hens cocks hens
2010 186 271 85 57 40 144 0
2011 282 350 118 170 113 502 600 cocks*
2012 323 410 147 141 80 201 600 cocks*
2013 254 218 148 142 111 383 600 cocks*
2014 310 364 133 151 103 328 600 cocks*

3) Woodcock

For Woodcock we are surveying four different woods, of which two annually have between 20-30 registrations of roding males on each visit in May and June. This equates to 5-6 individual males per wood, although the extent of overlap between woods is unknown. No roding has been recorded in the two other woods so far. Two birds have been radio-satellite tagged on the estate (Monkey III and Evelyn), and they can be followed on our Woodcock Watch webpage. Additionally, over 150 individuals have been ringed in winter 2014/15, adding to continuous increase of detailed research and knowledge of the species in general and at Rotherfield in particular.

4) Lapwing

Under HLS we have created two rotational Lapwing plots which are established in extended over-wintered stubbles. These have become the most preferred areas for nesting. Outside these plots rape and maize are the most frequently used habitats. In 2010 we recorded 10 pairs of Lapwings, of which nine clutches hatched and five produced 1-3 fledglings. In 2011 only two pairs nested but none fledged any birds and in 2012 only one brood hatched chicks, which, however, did not fledge. In 2013 seven pairs were recorded of which all hatched two chicks and six produced two fledglings each. In 2014 the breeding stock further increased to 12 pairs of which nine fledged a total of 14 chicks.

5) Songbirds

All farmland songbirds of conservation concern that occur in the project area show increases at Rotherfield since project begin (Fig 1). As with the gamebirds, most songbirds monitored suffered a negative impact from the wet summer in 2012 from which they are still recovering. Exceptions are the house sparrow (+224% since 2010) and dunnock (+105%). Across the period from 2010-2014 and across the entire estate, the skylark has increased by 62%, the yellowhammer by 24%, the linnet by 79%, the song thrush by 252% and the whitethroat 15% along a 20km farmland transect (10km on each side of the estate), counted once every April, May and June. Despite an initial increase the two seed-eating specialists, the goldfinch and greenfinch, decreased by 7% and 25% respectively. On the other hand, species which are not known to benefit from wild bird seed cover such as the bullfinch, spotted flycatcher and tree pipit remained unchanged or are still too few in number to show any trend.

It seems likely that the continuous increase of suitable habitat since 2010 together with intensified predation control and winter feeding is responsible for the positive trends, whereas the current overall negative trends for the greenfinch and goldfinch might be a temporary trend caused by a couple of poor breeding seasons.

Figure 1: Change in farmland songbird numbers along two 10km farmland transect during the breeding season (April-June) across the two sides of the Rotherfield demonstration project area between 2010 and 2014 (species with * are of conservation concern)

Change in farmland songbird numbers along two 10km farmland transect during the breeding season (April-June) across the two sides of the Rotherfield demonstration project area between 2010 and 2014 (species with * are of conservation concern)

Further reading

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