Partridge preservation – a peep into the past

David S. D. Jones looks at how rearing methods have changed over the years and the effect that this has had on wild partridge numbers.

The English or grey partridge has been hawked, netted and shot by sportsmen in Great Britain since the Middle Ages. Indeed, until the mid-Victorian period, it was considered to be the premier game bird on many estates and seen as a better quarry species than the pheasant. For centuries the grey partridge has been preserved for sporting purpose, both through vermin control and poaching prevention and by the implementation of successive Acts of Parliament passed to protect game birds.

However, by the late 18th century, over-shooting and netting in some parts of England, particularly in East Anglia and the south eastern counties, had reduced the native stocks of grey partridges to such an extent that several major landowners imported French or redleg partridge eggs from France and hatched them beneath broody hens.

Two adjoining Suffolk landowners, the Marquess of Hertford of Sudbourne and Peter Thelluson of Rendelsham are credited with the first introduction of French partridge eggs into England in 1770. They were followed by the Duke of Richmond at Goodwood in Sussex, who purchased a consignment of 800 eggs from France at a cost of £14-16/- in 1774, and his neighbour, Sir Henry Fetherstonhaugh,Bt., at Uppark, who obtained eggs from France in 1776.

Soon afterwards a few landowners began to artificially rear grey partridges for sporting purposes using broody hens, but apart from on estates such as Goodwood or Hackwood Park in Hampshire, this method of rearing did not become general practice until the late Victorian period when H.H. the Maharajah Duleep Singh and other top sportsmen implemented hand rearing in order to obtain large bags of driven partridges. Even then, many leading shots eschewed hand rearing in favour of other ways of increasing partridge stocks on the basis that birds produced in this manner were less sporting than wild birds.

Landowners instead adopted nest management as the principal form of partridge preservation, offering a ‘nest payment' of 1/- per nest to farm labourers and others for reporting the locations of nests in fields and hedgerows to a gamekeeper in order that he could keep a watching brief over them during spring and early summer. Remarkably, this method of partridge preservation continued to be operated on some estates until the 1950s, although payments did not increase with inflation, always remaining at 1/- per nest!

Nest management continued to be the favoured method of partridge preservation until the late Victorian period when Mr Pearson Gregory, sporting tenant of the Duke of Grafton's Euston estate in Suffolk, developed the Euston System for increasing and improving the partridge stocks on a shoot. Under this system, partridge eggs were removed from nests and replaced with artificial eggs, then incubated beneath broody hens until the point of chipping, when they were returned to nests for hatching.

Advantages gained by using the Euston System to rear partridges included the minimisation of nest losses through bad weather and vermin destruction and the ability to improve stocks by moving eggs from one nest to another. Indeed, many gamekeepers operating this method of preservation exchanged eggs with neighbouring estates in order to obtain new blood, or even travelled by express train to London and swapped a consignment of eggs with a keeper from a distant county such as Yorkshire, Hampshire or Devon at a mainline railway station. The Euston System continued to be used extensively throughout England until the late 1930s.

Occasionally a landowner would use the French System for rearing partridges in preference to the Euston System. This involved catching and penning up male and female birds, then after mating had taken place, putting the female birds into small pens to lay and incubate their own eggs. Several weeks after hatching, the young partridge chicks, along with the adult birds, would then be released into the wild to fend for themselves. Although expensive to set up and manage, this system of rearing did ensure that birds were sheltered from the weather and safe from vermin.

In addition to artificial rearing or nest management, from the 1850s until the 1930s it was customary on many estates to bolster stocks of grey partridges by putting down live birds imported from Hungary and other Central European countries. These birds could be obtained ‘over the counter' from dealers in Leadenhall Market in London, purchased on a private basis from advertisers in journals such as The Field or ordered through game farms. During the late 1890s, a number of landowners, including the Duke of Portland at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire and Sir William Gordon Cumming at Altyre in Scotland, doubled their annual partridge bag by releasing Hungarian grey partridges on their shoot.

From 1890s until the outbreak of the WWII in 1939, many major landowners employed at least one dedicated partridge keeper to preserve partridges on their property. These men were responsible for looking after partridge beats and were expected to produce enough birds to provide a sizeable bag of partridges on a shoot day.

Occasionally, an estate was managed solely as a partridge shoot. It was then traditionally known as a “Partridge Manor”. For example, Heale House, a 2,724-acre sporting property in the Woodford Valley in Wiltshire, was run along these lines during the Edwardian period, with three partridge beats under the control of a head keeper and two beat keepers. Each of the beats was usually shot over three times in a season, with bags averaging between 75 to 100 brace of partridges per day. Pheasants were not reared, and any pheasants were shot on sight as vermin.

Following the end of the WWI in 1918, grey partridge stocks began to decline in many areas. The recession of the 1920s and 30s caused a large number of estates to be put down to grass and the birds disappeared where they had once been common. However, they still survived in large numbers where arable farming predominated.

In the wake of WWII, the introduction of new arable farming methods did much to destroy the habitat of the grey partridge. Large scale hedgerow and bank removal, stubble burning, silage cutting in May, artificial fertilisers and chemical weed killer sprays which destroy the insects on which the birds live all took their toll on partridge survival rates.

Happily, though, over the past decade or so, a number of landowners have made tremendous efforts to increase the stocks of English grey partridges on their land through habitat enhancement, sympathetic farming practices and by annually putting down birds from game farms or implementing bag restrictions and, occasionally, a temporary shooting ban. Indeed, at Sandringham in Norfolk, at Arundel in Sussex and on a number or other estates, imaginative grey partridge restoration projects have led to a return of the birds in significant numbers, producing good daily bags both on walked-up and driven shoots.

That said, the French or red-legged partridge continues to be the principal quarry species on the majority of today's sporting properties.

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