Manors fit for an Englishman
The Field|September 2020
Restoring our grey partridges and the farmland ecology they depend on reaps conservation rewards far beyond just a shootable surplus of the gamebird, as work on four pioneering partridge manors proves
JOE DIMBLE BY OF THE GWCT

In the age of the pheasant a wild grey partridge day is unknown to most guns. But it was not long ago that it was the quarry of rich and poor alike, both driven on grand days hosted on great estates and walked-up over farmers’ fields. Here since the past ice age, this native gamebird would have been familiar to all countrymen and celebrated across the land, from Cornwall to Caithness. During the first half of the 20th century, there were more than one million pairs of grey partridge. Today, only 43,000 pairs remain with a 92% decline from 1967 to 2015.

This dramatic fall in numbers is intrinsically linked to the modernisation of farming and has made the grey partridge a barometer for the health of our countryside. Projects that manage to improve its fortunes show huge increases in biodiversity, with fields full of songbirds, bees and butterflies providing fantastic examples of game management as a driver for conservation. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) Partridge Count Scheme (PCS), which started in the 1930s, showed that between 2000 to 2015 partridge numbers dropped nationally by 54% whereas they rose by 91% on PCS sites with a shoot and only dropped 18% on those without a shoot.

Partridge conservation is not easy and works best when those who undertake it get as much reward from seeing wildlife return to their land as they do from the prospect of one day flushing a homegrown Englishman. Neither is it a money-making venture but it is possible to achieve a sustainable harvest. Annual bags will be modest and subject to the weather, but for those looking for quality over quantity a restored wild English partridge manor is a very special thing. It is to be hoped that more landowners will take inspiration from the great estates leading the way.

ARUNDEL ESTATE, WEST SUSSEX

The Duke of Norfolk’s Arundel Estate is the site of the legendary Peppering Partridge Project, which rapidly transformed 2,200-acres of arable farmland into a wildlife haven. In 2002, just four wild partridges remained, so permission was given to translocate nine pairs from Norfolk. The entire bloodline has come from those wild birds and there has been no fostering, which the Duke describes as the ‘golden rule’. By 2010, 1,852 partridges were recorded and to date they have achieved more than 2,000 birds five times. The Duke of Norfolk explained, “It started when the GWCT’s senior ecologist Dick Potts said unless we did something, the grey partridge will soon be extinct on the South Downs. I couldn’t let that happen on my watch.”

A radical change to the farming system was overseen by estate manager Peter Knight. Ten kilometres of hedges were planted with four-meter cover strips alongside. Conservation headlands were introduced in every field to produce the wildflowers that support the insects on which the chicks depend. The Duke said, “Many red-listed flowers and insects have returned, which has astounded scientists and shows nature’s extraordinary ability to recover. Restoring wild greys is not rocket science, but it requires attention to detail.”

Gamekeeping is the third crucial element in this recovery, with year-round supplementary feeding and predator control from January until July. The work of the team of three keepers, led by Charlie Mellor, has resulted in thriving populations of red-listed skylarks, corn buntings, yellowhammers and linnets, with the estate producing one-third of all the lapwing chicks in the South Downs National Park.

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