Releasing grey partridges for conservation

Introduction

Grey partridge (www.lauriecampbell.com)The grey or English partridge (Perdix perdix) is a native bird of farmed land that has suffered a severe population decline in Britain in the last few decades. As a result numbers have shown a long-term decline, estimated at 88% between 1970 and 2003. It is a red category species, a bird of serious conservation concern and is the subject of its own Biodiversity Action Plan for its national recovery.

The role of rearing and releasing birds - historical

In the past, many farmers and estate owners have tried releasing birds in an attempt to restock their land either for shooting, or more often because people wish to see this popular and iconic bird around the farm. What little research has been done in the UK and around Europe shows that these aims have not been achieved and releasing does little to build up a stock. Released birds disperse off the farm very quickly, survive the winter period poorly, fail to stay on the farm in the spring, or fail to breed. Certainly shooting returns are often low. Some people still claim that they have recreated "wild" stocks from releasing programmes. We have not examined all these claims but we have not found proven examples of such success from the many of our Advisory clients who have tried this. What evidence we do have suggests that releasing to restock does not work.

Halting the decline of the wild grey partridge and achieving the Biodiversity Action Plan targets

At present, most of our efforts at building populations of wild grey partridges back into the UK countryside are based on expanding existing populations. Where a remnant population still exists we try to encourage land managers and farmers to begin a programme of management to include all the tried and tested management techniques of habitat management (to create winter cover, nesting cover and brood-rearing cover) feeding and predation control pioneered by The Game Conservancy Trust. Implementing the management programme is designed to increase, over time, numbers of birds already present but at low densities. Our demonstration of grey partridge restoration at Royston, Hertfordshire ably demonstrates what can be done.

The role of rearing and releasing - recent innovations

However, we have not completely ignored the role that releasing birds may have on its potential to increase the range of the grey partridge, particularly in areas where grey partridges have disappeared (much of the West Country, Wales, Ireland etc). However, we do need to design rearing and releasing techniques that work.

Since 2004 we have had a series of experiments running in the south and East of England whereby we are trialling various ways of releasing grey partridges. These differ from current releasing methods in their timings and ages of release, methods of rearing etc. Large numbers of birds were reared last summer and released in the late summer, autumn and spring. This year we will monitor their progress, see how well they survived the winter and whether they have stayed where they were put and rear young of their own. We will report the process for another year (rear and release in 2005, monitor their progress in 2006) so by late harvest 2006, this research will be finished and we will know whether we have a technique that works. This research has been funded by The Westminster Foundation to whom we are immensely grateful.

If we do, then please believe us, we will share the information with the many hundreds of farmers who are keen to have a go. 2007 will be the first year you could have a go with this information at hand to guide you.

So please be patient while we complete this research so we can get the best science-based information to you. This will mean you will have the best chance of success with the restoration of this beautiful bird to your farm.

Please watch this space! If you are interested in releasing birds, now is the time to start creating the best habitats for grey partridges on your farm. You could design your application to ELS around partridge-friendly management or even consider HLS? In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland such provision to create habitats exists in RSS/LMCs, Tier Gofal and CMS respectively. You could also join the Partridge Count Scheme (PCS) or make sure you stay in the scheme to be sure of the extent of your wild population before you release.

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