Scottish grey partridge conservation

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grey partridge ringingConserving the grey partridge in the Kingdom of Fife, by Dr. Dave Parish, Senior Scientist for the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, Scotland.

The grey partridge is an enigmatic species synonymous with the Scottish lowlands, whose plight has been well documented in recent years. Unfortunately they have declined inexorably through the 20th century with the loss of gamekeepers and more recently with wholesale changes to the availability and quality of crucial farmland habitats, to the point where today the breeding population is but a few per cent of the number shot annually in the early 1900s.

Many readers will be familiar with Game Wildlife and Conservation Trust (GWCT) research carried out over the years that has produced solutions to some of the problems faced by grey partridge. For example, conservation headlands are a simple way of creating a manageable community of weeds within cereal endriggs that can support crucial chick-food (insects) and ultimately improve breeding success for the birds. Similarly, beetle banks recreate grassy margins within large fields that support numerous insects and provide top-quality nesting habitat for this special bird, without hampering normal farming operations. However, that’s not the end of the story and there are still some unknowns. 

One of the challenges it faces today comes from the once scarce, now common birds of prey, with significant levels of predation recorded by GWCT in southern Scotland. With help from Kingdom Farming, Kings Seeds and Scottish Agronomy, we are working with Balgonie Estate in Fife to design a better type of cover crop that will provide improved protection from raptors, as well as food supplies which are obviously important. 

There has been surprisingly little research into what types of cover crop are favoured by the grey partridge, so we hope to develop something that will be sought after by the birds, will keep them safe and well fed, and also be easy for farmers to grow and manage. Making the crop easy to grow is as important as designing it to suit grey partridges. GWCT advisors are frequently asked for guidance on growing cover crops of all types – which often have to be in a mix if they are part of a scheme which serves to complicate matters further. Without such guidance crops often fail to reach their full potential.

saving greysSo at Balgonie we are looking at the feasibility of basing a mix around chicory. This is a common cover crop which is quite vigorous and can grow to a couple of metres in height at times, but importantly it is also a perennial in nature. So farmers won’t have to repeatedly remove and resow the crop, greatly reducing the time and effort devoted to maintaining it. We established such a crop at Balgonie in 2015 and are now beginning to monitor how grey partridge and other wildlife use the new habitat.

Part of this monitoring effort is greatly helped by fitting a sample of greys with small radio transmitters which allows us to follow them remotely. This reveals the birds’ intimate behaviours but without us unduly disturbing them. In late winter/early spring we do this by searching for roosting pairs in fields at night with a lamp and simply catch them in a long-handled net – a landing net is ideal. 

We weigh the caught birds and measure them in various ways to get as much information as possible from them, and then we glue a small tag to the feathers on their back. With luck, this will stay in position until the birds moult in the autumn, by which time we hope to have discovered where they have nested, whether they raised chicks, how much time they spent in all the different habitats available to them and, if they were unlucky enough to die, what caused their death.

We hope this project will produce some valuable, practical information that we can use to influence policy makers in Scotland and improve agri-environment schemes, as well as encourage more farmers to consider growing appropriate cover crops. 

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