A history of the redleg partridge
David S.D. Jones looks at the introduction and history of the redleg partridge as a quarry species in the UK.
Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, tens of thousands of grey partridges were imported into Great Britain annually from Hungary to increase or to improve the stocks on sporting estates. Large numbers of French or redleg partridges were brought into the country, too, for the same reasons.
The first person to introduce the French partridge into Britain for sporting purposes was King Charles II who obtained a consignment of the birds from Chambord in France in 1673 for release into the royal parks of Richmond and Windsor. This experiment, however, appears to have been a failure.
A century or so later in 1770, two adjoining East Suffolk landowners, the Marquess of Hertford and Peter Thelluson, made the first successful introduction of the French partridge into England on their estates at Sudbourne and Rendelsham, by importing a large number of eggs which they hatched out beneath domestic fowls. Shortly afterwards, in 1774, the Duke of Richmond purchased a consignment of 800 partridge eggs from France at a cost of £14-16/- (£14.80) for incubation and release on the Goodwood estate in Sussex.
Surviving records for the Rendelsham estate indicate that it took several decades for the French partridge stocks to build up to a level where a reasonable bag could be obtained. For example in 1806, 112 redleg partridges were shot on the property in comparison with 1,815 greys. The birds could have been more successful if some neighbouring landowners had not instructed their gamekeepers to shoot them as vermin!
Throughout the early 19th century, the French partridge was gradually introduced into southern and eastern England, particularly in the corn growing districts, to provide an additional quarry species for sportsmen. The birds were first released in West Suffolk in 1823, when Lord de Ros and Lord Alvanley imported eggs from France, which were hatched and put down in the Culford area, and had reached the western edge of Hampshire by 1834 when the Earl of Malmesbury released several pairs on the Heron Court estate near Christchurch.
By 1900, the French partridge could be found throughout much of England and in some parts of Scotland. The birds were now being artificially reared on many estates, with the stocks regularly being supplemented and improved by the importation of fresh birds and eggs from France and other countries. It has been said that on some estates at this time that French partridges might account for between 25 and 50 per cent of the daily partridge bag taken on specific beats.
French partridges and eggs continued to be brought into Britain on a regular basis, right up until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, in order to ‘bolster up' the thriving residual populations which had already been established in many areas of the country. Thereafter, the birds readily adapted to the new arable farming methods that were introduced in the wake of the war which, sadly, did much to destroy the natural habitat of the wild grey partridge. The French or redleg partridge subsequently took over as the principal partridge quarry species on the majority of British sporting properties and remains such at the present time.
Grey partridges were first imported into Britain from Hungary and other parts of Central Europe during the mid-19th century in order to bolster the native stocks which were being decimated by over-shooting in some areas. The birds and their eggs could be obtained ‘over the counter' from dealers in Leadenhall Market in London from the 1850s onwards, or purchased on a private basis from advertisers in journals such as The Field.
In the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, major landowners were turning down large numbers of Hungarian grey partridges every year with the sole purpose of obtaining increased bags. For example, the 6th Duke of Portland more than doubled his annual bag at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire in the late 1890s through the introduction of as many as 1,200 birds at a time. Sir William Gordon Cumming was similarly successful, doubling his bag at Altyre in Scotland using this method in only three seasons!
Other landowners at this time, including Alexander Pitt-Rivers at Rushmore in Wiltshire, the Earl of Ellesmere at Stetchworth in Cambridgeshire and Sir John Gladstone at Fasque in Kincardineshire, achieved equally good increased bags using imported Hungarian grey partridge eggs which were hatched out under fowls.
Hungarian grey partridges and partridge eggs continued to be imported into Britain until 1939. One supplier, The Country Gentleman's Association of Letchworth, charged £13-10/- (£13.50) per 100 eggs at this time and was prepared to quote a price ‘upon application' for birds which had been “penned on clean sweet meadow land for about 10 days to recover from the effects of their journey from Hungary and to become acclimatised”.
The Hungarian grey partridge trade was suspended during the Second World War, then stopped entirely, following the cessation of hostilities in 1944 when Hungary was absorbed into Communist Eastern Europe. Today, the grey partridge, considered by many to be a native species, is of largely Hungarian ancestry!
Not content with shooting only grey and French partridges, some of the wealthier Victorian and Edwardian sportsmen made attempts to introduce various exotic partridges from Asia and elsewhere onto their estates in order to provide an additional quarry species. H.H. the Maharajah Dhuleep Singh, for example, put down barbary partridges on the Elveden Hall estate in Suffolk in the 1860s and 70s, while the 11th Duke of Bedford unsuccessfully tried to establish black partridges from Palestine and bamboo partridges from north-east India at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire during the early years of the 20th century.
The Duke of Bedford, however, successfully introduced the chukar partridge, another Indian species, at Woburn Abbey prior to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, building up a reasonable stock for shooting purposes. The chukar, which was eagerly pursued by British sportsmen in India during the days of the Raj, continued to be put down as a quarry bird on various English sporting properties from the Edwardian period until the 1970s. However, it is now illegal for a landowner or a gamekeeper to release the chukar or any other non-native partridge for sporting or ornamental purposes under the terms of the Wildlife & Countryside Act (1981).