6 Minute Read
Written by Mike Swan, GWCT Head of Education. This article first appeared in Shooting Times.
Photo Credit: Peter Thompson
Writing in a September heatwave, it is easy to forget that it has been a funny old spring and summer. It started with a frosty April, followed by a cold wet May. Then things began to look up, with a warm sunny start to June, only to break down again with some seriously wet weather around peak partridge hatch time at the end of the month.
There is a school of thought that says grey partridges just cannot take rain, and that the chicks will all expire if they have to face anything much more than a light shower. Well, it clearly isn’t true. Its fair to say that in my part of the world it has not been a vintage year for the wild greys, and yes there are some barren pairs and small late broods. But there are also some very decent coveys; in fact it looks like a pretty average year to me.
If you think about it, this is hardly surprising; grey partridges are native, so they must surely be able to cope with an average British summer, complete with thunderstorms, and cold wet days. Right through history the greys have had good and bad years, that is in the nature of the species, but years of no young just do not happen.
So, if you have a hankering for trying to get them back on your shoot, please don’t let fears about the weather put you off. Our grey partridges have evolved to cope with all that the British weather has to offer
The Three Legged Stool
In my early days at GWCT, I learned a great deal about grey partridges from the late Dr Dick Potts who was then director of research. It was he who coined the phrase “Three-Legged Stool” to help folk understand the fundamentals of what grey partridges needed to thrive.
What Dick said was that there are three basic requirements; a suitable habitat, food throughout the life cycle, and reasonable freedom from predation. Just like the three legs of a milking stool, if any of these supports is missing, the whole arrangement will collapse.
Greys are believed to have evolved in open steppe country, and in the UK they live on mixed and arable farmland, dune systems, moorland edges and similar open habitats. They largely avoid woodland and trees, although hedges and small scrubby areas can be very important in providing shelter, especially in winter. Sadly, many shoots that used to have greys will probably never be able to get them back, because what was once suitable open country has had too much woodland planted.
Food Throughout the Life Cycle
Fully grown partridges are largely seed eaters, and a diet of corn from feeders, spilt grain and weed seeds, supplemented with a bit of salad in the form of green shoots and leaves will do them very well. However, in common with many other seed eating birds, chicks need insects to provide easy digestibility, and extra protein for growth.
What is less well understood is that these insects need to be the right sorts – soft, squidgy and slow moving creepy-crawlies that live near the ground, where tiny chicks can reach them. Little caterpillar like things such as sawfly and beetle larvae are ideal.
It is also crucial to understand that the parents will lead the chicks into suitable foraging habitats to look for these.
To do this they need freedom of movement between the plants, a reasonably dry floor, and some overhead cover. In many ways the ideal version of this is a conservation headland in the edge of a cereal crop. This is sown as usual, but has insecticides, most herbicides and fertilisers left off, to produce a thin crop with a modicum of broad leaved weeds that act as host plants for the creepy-crawlies.
Carefully chosen wild bird seed mixes, based mainly on cereals, can recreate this habitat very well. Rushy pastures can also offer great brood rearing; they are often the key grey partridge areas on the edges of grouse moors. They offer a similar habitat structure to a conservation headland and play host to a different sort of sawfly larvae plus other suitable chick foods. Intensively managed grass is no good, because it tends to be wet and impenetrable, as well as lacking the right insects.
The other key food need is seeds in winter and spring. Once upon a time, there was usually enough ‘natural’ food by way of spilt grains and weed seeds to keep wild partridges fit and well throughout the year.
Today efficient farming has changed that, with weeds under better control, and improved harvest efficiency meaning less spilt grains. Simple hoppers filled with wheat and kept topped up till late spring are now pretty much essential to hold coveys on your ground, and then feed pairs as they go into the rigours of the breeding season.
Freedom from Predation
Partridges are incredibly productive birds, laying some of the largest clutches of any bird. As a consequence, they can stand very high levels of predation, but there is a plethora of predators out there to gobble them up. Making the best possible environment for them is key to minimising this, but so is good predation control. No one can expect a thriving partridge population unless they are serious about controlling predation by the likes of crows, magpies, stoats, rats and foxes.
There is no point trying to reintroduce greys unless you have sorted all of what is said above first. In most circumstances, where the basic habitat is ok, there will still be a few birds left in your parish, so given their natural productivity, you should be able to expect them to bounce back when you set their world to rights.
If that does not happen, you will be well advised to consult the GWCT advisory service for specialist help. Successful reintroduction is a complex business, and releasing ordinary game farm greys is very unlikely to do any good; these birds just do not have the native cunning needed to make it in the real world.
Over the last decade or so, there have been quite a few successful partridge restoration projects, proving that given the commitment, it can be done. In all cases, these projects are shining examples of good farmland conservation, with enormous biodiversity benefits alongside, proving that conservation through wise use does work.
Let's not call them English!
There is something of a habit of calling our native partridges “English”, to distinguish them from the French or redleg. I hate this term, not least because it is a snub to Scotland, Ireland and Wales, where the grey is equally native, and in the case of Scotland at least, still thriving over wide areas. They are also native across much of Europe and western Asia, and across the pond, where they have been established in the USA and Canada, they are usually called Hungarian partridges (or “Huns” for short) because that is where they were introduced from. Let us please just call them “Greys”.
Count your Partridges
Monitoring what is happening to your partridges is great fun, and the results are crucial to the overall picture of grey partridge conservation by shoots. So, please enrol in the GWCT partridge count scheme. That way you will get a detailed guide to how to do it well, and also feedback on how your results compare. My colleague Neville Kingdon is the person to help, email@example.com