Paradise for partridges

Paradise for partridges

An English partridge project in Northumberland has delivered some spectacular results. Mike Barnes travelled to Alnwick to find out more.

The project on his Ratcheugh farm has seen the number of pairs rise in three short seasons from 17 to 200. The summer count last year was 1,148 partridges and the shoot duly went ahead. “Having embarked on the project I had been thinking that in 10 years time we might shoot 30 brace. So to be in a position to have a day's shooting to mark my birthday was fantastic.

“The conditions of the day, held last October, were far from ideal. Rain and an easterly. All of the drives we had planned were geared to a westerly, the prevailing wind.” So how did he feel - was he at all apprehensive? “I hardly slept” he laughed, shaking his head. “None of us were at all confident - it was a new experience in all respects. There was certainly no-one in Northumberland with any experience of organising a day of this sort of wild English partridges.

“The line was made up of five family members - my wife and myself, two of our children, and brother James - plus four friends. Standing on the end of the line on the first drive I was terrified” he smiles, wincing at the thought, and it's not hard to deduce that on the day tension and excitement were proving a heady cocktail.” It was quite a long wait, then suddenly a cloud of them went over. We had expected them to clip the hedgerows, but they soared over a tree and a lot were lost out of the side of the drive. We only shot six brace. Not the best of starts.

“But from then on it just got better and better, culminating in the drive before lunch where we shot 23 brace - my wife shot 10 and 10 pheasants, all wild.” The bag for the morning was a tantalising 49½ brace - one bird short of the magic figure. Lunch was a very animated affair, and by the time the day was completed the bag was 84½ brace of greys, 3 brace of redlegs, 85 pheasants and 11 pigeons. In fact only two brace of greys short of the 1910 record.

So how did the project get started? “The main driving force has been Garry (Whitfield), our head keeper - he bullied us all into it! I knew there were a few pairs, and I thought we should help them along. It was ten years ago that I started with the Stewardship Scheme, but after four or five years we could see that we were only playing at it.”

Garry is now in his 19th year at Hulne Park, the Alnwick Castle home shoot, and was appointed head keeper four years ago. It was then that he started the ball rolling. Garry picks up the story: “I was interested but could see that we would never achieve anything of significance” he said “unless we put more into it. So I put together a proposal and a budget which I presented to the Duke and the agent. Both gave it the green light and that's when it all got underway.”

But grey partridges in Northumberland? I can't be the first to assume that this was not their natural habitat. Quite wrong. Maybe not the natural advantages of Norfolk or Hampshire, but grey partridges were once to be found in many parts of the country, including such unlikely locations as Wigtownshire, the Angus glens and the Cheviots, where as a boy Garry recalls his gamekeeper father going on 20-30 brace days in the Rothbury area.

The record year at Alnwick was 1870/71, when the total bag for the season was 1,543. “The numbers were generally pretty good until the first world war,” Garry added, “but dropped off thereafter and then after the Second World War there were soon hardly any.” The Duke explained: “The record bag would have been made by my great grandfather, but shooting missed out in the following two generations as both my grandfather and father were very keen on foxhunting. I love my fishing so I can't hunt as well - there wouldn't be time for anything! I spent a lot of my childhood holidays with the head keeper, and I guess that I have always been passionate about shooting.”

Though the BTO only recorded three pairs during a songbird count four years ago, a more dedicated count revealed 17 pairs, so clearly there was a starting point, albeit a very low one on an area of 1,443 acres. The keepered area of the estate itself is 22,000 acres.

One of the spurs of the project for them, Garry explained, was the importance of the shooting fraternity saving the grey partridge. “If we don't do anything about it, this is a bird which could be removed from the quarry list. It is also one of our few surviving UK game birds and a bird which is so closely associated with our sport. We have been fortunate in that we are in a position to do something, and the Duke has been very generous in investing in the project. But all of us hoped that we could learn a few things that would prove useful to other shoots. And certainly there is much which small shoots can do to help.”

The first move was to employ a full time beat keeper, a position which went to Kevan McCaig, who came to Alnwick four years ago as a beat keeper, but fancied the opportunity to work on the project when the vacancy arose and has done a superb job. “You need someone who can work on their own, self-motivated, and Kevan has been absolutely dedicated. He has done all the groundwork to make it happen.” In fact he has not only been presented with the Northumberland Game Conservancy Trust Grey Partridge Award, he has won the 2007 Farmers Weekly National Gamekeeper of the Year Award, which was to have been presented at the CLA Game Fair at Harewood House.

So what has been the secret - what have they done? “There is no one thing. The Stewardship Schemes are good, but will not work on their own. To start with we took lots of advice, and people were very helpful. Hugo Straker from the Game Conservancy came, and Kevan visited the big partridge estates in Norfolk - Sandringham, Holkham, Barsham - and Edmondthorpe. He spoke with Royston. There is also a book called Partridges and Partridge Manors by Aylmer Maxwell, published in 1911, which was useful. It was a case of putting everything together, finding what was appropriate to us and learning as we went along.”

One aspect of their land management which was immediately apparent was the need to move their stewardship strips - for instance, from the wrong shady side of hedgerows - and also the need to manage their set-aside better. “Set-aside as such, with all its constraints, can be very damaging for partridges and we have now switched from large blocks to a patchwork effect.” Simultaneously 12 metre conservation headlands were introduced around all fields (since reduced to six metres) and there's no crop spraying with herbicides or insecticides. “Apart from our own farm being run efficiently, 1,000 acres is farmed by tenants who obviously also want maximum yields. So this could have proved a hurdle, but the head agent, Rory Wilson, farm manager Dan Matthews and all the tenant farmers have thankfully been very supportive, which has made quite a difference. It would be impossible without their support.”

The in-hand farms have planted 9,225 metres of hedging, while on tenanted farms 9,963 metres of fencing has been erected, to prevent stock overgrazing hedge bases.

Night-time farm work was halted to prevent disturbance of birds, and winter stubbles left as long as possible. Following derogation from DEFRA the outside three metres of some of the grass margins were changed to a pollen and nectar mix. “Young partridges are dependent on insects as a food source for the fist three weeks of their lives, so we use mixes that we know will attract the insects they need.” As regard food for older birds, Kevan runs 300 hoppers (the project area is now in excess of 3,000 acres) the year round.

They also regard the introduction of dust shelters as hugely important. “With the wet weather we have been having this year, the shelters and the roads through the farm have been a real boon to the birds, giving them somewhere to dry and dust.” For dusting purposes they also leave a barren strip between the margins and the crops.

“As mentioned, the real problem is maintaining the profitability of the farm whilst also creating an ideal habitat for the partridges.” To keep a sense of reality, all crops foregone and additional farm work undertaken are fully costed. “But to that end we have made use of poorer areas of ground (which varies from clay to sandy).” Crucial to the success of the project have been more obvious things such as not topping the six metre margins at nesting and brood rearing times, and reducing general grass cutting unless absolutely essential. But other aspects were less obvious, and we had to find which cover mixes worked and which didn't”.

Of course the other fundamental, apart from providing food and cover, is protection from vermin. Their annual vermin cull is between 1,300-1,500. “There were a lot of stoats and weasels in the first year but it hadn't been keepered so it was to be expected.” Eggs from vulnerable nests were hatched under bantams, and the chicks presented to barren pairs. But this amounted to no more than 100. The benefits to wildlife in general have been far reaching. Hedge sparrow, lapwing, skylark, chaffinch and yellow hammer are just some of the species whose numbers have shot up since the start of the project. The Alnwick Wildlife Group carries out bird surveys, and the Northumberland Wildlife Trust have an article planned for their magazine.

The Duke of Northumberland has been so inspired by the success of the project that now some extra land has come back in hand, the total project area is to be increased to 5,000 acres and a second beat keeper is being taken on. “We have been very fortunate in having three good partridge years” added Garry “where the spring has been very kind, which has given us a good start. We have also seen a big increase in hares and wild pheasants. In total last season as well as shooting 317 grey partridges, we also shot over 400 pheasants. It means that we are able to thank the tenant farmers with a wild bird day in January, when we expect to shoot a bag of around 100 head.”

The shoot is only one mile inland from the sea, and enjoys some wonderful rolling ground, so given the wind the pheasants can provide some excellent sport. The partridges meanwhile become wild in every respect.

But what about this forthcoming season - will there be a day's shooting? We were chatting about the possibility, and Kevan gave the most fantastically evasive answer! But heart was taken from the fact that he said that given the poor weather the birds had done much better than expected. Though some had clearly failed at the first attempt. He had seen a brood of 23 during the last week of May, and then a big brood of day old chicks in the last week of July. It's just what may have happened during the horrendous weather inbetween.

But as we left the farm, we disturbed three good coveys in the stubbles, and another of 10 straddled the farm road. The signs looked good.

Shooting for the Duke of Northumberland is the bonus. A passionate and committed sportsman and widely regarded as an outstanding grouse shot, he also has a profound understanding of wildlife. “The shooting was wonderful. It is unique - absolutely unlike anything else. But there is so much more to the project - these are marvellous little birds and it has been really rewarding seeing them in such numbers. Garry and Kevan have done a fantastic job.”

All three are to be credited in creating a partridge paradise, where a whole host of other birds thrive. If only all farms could be like this - as the European Commission ponders on the future of farm subsidies, maybe they should look in the direction of Northumberland.

Ironically on the day of my visit, the Daily Telegraph had published a news item which read as follows: “The wet summer has been disastrous for the grey partridge which is on the brink of extinction in many areas.” Thanks to the considerable efforts of all involved, this most definitely doesn't apply to Ratcheugh, surely the Britain's most northerly partridge manor and songbird haven.

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