Researchers at the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), who are studying wild grey partridges – one of our fastest declining farmland birds – are hoping for a warm summer this year to repeat the breeding success of 2014, which saw an encouraging 18 per cent increase in grey partridges.
The 2014 autumn counts revealed that that the total number of grey partridges recorded in its Partridge Count Scheme (PCS) increased by 4,730 birds to a total of 33,250 birds.
According to the Trust more than a thousand farmers and gamekeepers are putting their combined weight behind saving this iconic species. These passionate and dedicated enthusiasts are also going out twice a year – in spring and autumn – to count their birds, to see how their birds are faring.
Dr Roger Draycott, from the GWCT said, “For the first time in several years we had excellent summer weather during the peak hatching season for grey partridge chicks. Where farmers and keepers had put in place a good bundle of management measures, we are witnessing a fantastic turn-around in numbers in most regions of the UK, which was reflected in the 2014 PCS autumn count data.”
Once widely spread across the country with a population of more than a million breeding pairs, the wild grey partridge population has suffered a massive drop in numbers of more than 86 per cent in the past 40 years because of land use changes and the indirect effect of pesticides, which killed off the insects that young chicks depend on to thrive – they need at least 2,000 insects per day to survive.
However, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, who have been monitoring the birds since 1933 through its Partridge Count Scheme, says that the counts last year showed an impressive uplift in its population. Roger Draycott explains, “Grey partridges can bounce back really quickly given the right conditions, particularly as they lay more eggs than any other bird in this country - as many as 18 eggs can be laid in one nest. But when bird numbers are very low they do need targeted management to maintain numbers, such as good all year round habitats, including, nesting, brood rearing and overwinter cover. They also benefit from supplementary food over winter as well as protection from predators during the breeding season.”
There was a distinct regional variation in bird numbers across the country last autumn. However, all regions within the Partridge Count Scheme measured an increase in bird densities in 2013/14.
Eastern counties of England maintained high autumn densities with a rise of 5 per cent. Norfolk, for example, which is a stronghold for grey partridge conservation recorded an impressive 30 birds per 100 hectares and this is an outstanding result.
Essex recorded double the breeding productivity necessary to prevent a further decline in numbers. However, the GWCT reports that it needs more people to count their birds in this area so that any changes can be monitored and potentially acted upon.
In Northern England: the PCS recorded the highest average density of any region in 2014 and this was up by 25% compared to 2013
Southern region: For the first time in 15 years the GWCT’s Partridge Count Scheme recorded a really encouraging improvement in breeding success. However, although this is good news, partridge productivity in the south remains the lowest in England despite being an area where partridges should be increasing.
West Country: The situation in this areas is looking increasingly dire. Although Dorset recorded good productivity, the rest of the south west continues to see very few birds and local extinctions could become a reality unless further measures are taken to help boost the limited number of birds that remain in the region.
The grey partridge is a classic farmland bird and is also a great indicator species of farmland biodiversity and implementing partridge-friendly management benefits many other species too.
Roger Draycott said, “Everyone with an interest in wild grey partridges should aim to build upon these good years in order to lessen the impact of poor years such as in 2012 when the appalling wet summer conditions were catastrophic for young partridge chicks.
“We have demonstrated that grey partridge recovery is achievable and although a total of nearly half-million acres was counted across the UK during the autumn count, we do need more farms, shoots and estates involved in partridge conservation as well as counting their birds each spring and autumn.”
The GWCT is urging everyone with an interest in grey partridge conservation to go out and count their birds this spring, even if they have just one or two birds.
Get involved in the Partridge Count Scheme
For more information, or to get involved in the GWCT’s Partridge Count Scheme, please visit: www.gwct.org.uk/pcs or contact Neville Kingdon, Partridge Count Scheme Co-ordinator on 01425 651066 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. As well as receiving feedback PCS members receive regular information and conservation updates and opportunities to attend regional partridge group meetings.
Photocaption: Wild grey partridges (pictured), which were once common across the country have suffered an 86% decline, but monitoring by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust shows that a warm summer this year could help to restore numbers in many areas. (Photocredit: Peter Thompson).
Notes to editors
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust – providing research-led conservation for a thriving countryside. The GWCT is an independent wildlife conservation charity which has carried out scientific research into Britain’s game and wildlife since the 1930s. We advise farmers and landowners on improving wildlife habitats. We employ 22 post-doctoral scientists and 50 other research staff with expertise in areas such as birds, insects, mammals, farming, fish and statistics. We undertake our own research as well as projects funded by contract and grant-aid from Government and private bodies. The Trust is also responsible for a number of Government Biodiversity Action Plan species and is lead partner for grey partridge and joint lead partner for brown hare and black grouse.
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Telephone: 01425 651000