A partridge day in Norfolk

Hillborough estate, Norfolk

After a wet summer washing out stocks of wild partridges, there seemed no prospect of a double-day's shooting taking place in the UK. However, Hugh van Cutsem's Hilborough estate in Norfolk defied the odds.

It was the penultimate day of October. A blue sky flecked with the whitest of clouds, and a long stubble field rolling away behind the line of Guns, pensively awaiting the first drive to get underway. From high in the air came the unmistakable trilling of skylarks, lots of them. Ironically the day closed to the sight of a flock of stone curlews over a tall hedge in front of the Guns.

The fact that this was one of two back-to-back days yielding almost 200 brace of wild partridges was more than a coincidence. On nowhere other than a wild partridge shoot would either of these species be seen in such numbers.

This was Hilborough, home of Hugh van Cutsem, a man who has devoted great energy to the revival and survival of grey partridges on his piece of Norfolk breckland. The Guns were a Belgian team led by Eric Verbeeck, who were fully appreciative of the fact that this was the only double-day of its kind to be held anywhere in the UK this year. Most have been coming to Norfolk for ten years or so for this increasingly rare sport, and to England, for shooting generally, for much longer. The team leader ran the Underley Hall shoot near Kirkby Lonsdale for 15 years. He explained: “This to me is what sport is about - I have done the big bags and all of the different kinds of shooting, but this is special.”

Indeed it was. The first day's eight drives had yielded 100 brace of partridges precisely (all wild) along with 33 cock pheasants and oddments to make for a total of 250 head, while the second day's seven drives put 85 brace in the bag, with pheasants and various, bringing the total close to that of the previous day.

The setting and sport could not have been better. Those big Norfolk skies, belts of Scots pine, stubbles, and fast flying, swirling coveys of partridges - every drive a classic scene of its sort. The two big questions are surely then, why are these days so rare and how has Hilborough managed to defy the odds? As ever the answers are complex, but the key factor is that the owner's passion for English partridges.

“They are just so special,” he explained. “But everything is against them - farming, vermin and this year the weather. Though I think we got away with it rather more lightly than north Norfolk. The saviour of our stocks has been the Montibello system which we have been using for eight or nine years. By hatching wild partridge eggs under broody hens, and then four to five weeks later putting the chicks with barren wild pairs, we are able to maintain a stock so that there are sufficient birds for a bad following year, but in a good breeding year to raise their numbers substantially.”

Their spring count on the 4,500 acre estate was 270 pairs. “This was down on the previous year, but we were not surprised as we had taken part in an experiment with the Game Conservancy which we were certain was not going to work. And it didn't!” This involved the straight release of ‘reared' birds from wild stock onto the ground. They quickly became fox fodder.

However the existing stock managed to successfully rear young, resulting in a count of 700. “There would also have been another 300, so that left us with a good shootable surplus, certainly enough for these two days. But no more. Two 100 brace days seemed to be just about right.” There would be no family shoot - instead the shooting was let to a team known to Hilborough which in turn helps offset some of the keepering costs. Head keeper Gerald Gray has a team of three under keepers - David Chandler, Martin Smith and Peter Foster.

He comes from a line of partridge keepers, and is as committed as his boss to enjoying some success with this delightful but threatened lowland game bird. His father and grandfather were head keepers at Newsels Park, Hertfordshire, just a couple of fields away from the current GWCT shoot near Royston - in 1964 at Newsels they shot a bag of 410 brace of wild greys.

Hugh van Cutsem has been highly successful in business and horse breeding, but as a teenager was a skilled game keeper in his own right. He keepered the family's 300 acre stud farm, and single handedly, as a 16-year-old, armed with 15 gin traps embarked on a school holiday campaign of vermin control and transformed a shoot which up until that point had delivered one day of 30/40 head but three years later delivered a big day of 320 wild pheasants. Two years on, one drive saw 250 cartridges fired for 27 pheasants.

It was here that his enthusiasm for grey partridges was fired. His efforts with the gin traps had given them a helping hand and like the pheasants, they had responded brilliantly. The legendary keeper Charlie South was also nearby at Six Mile Bottom. “He was amazing - on 550 acres he had 180 English partridge nests. Incredible.”

Since taking on Hilborough in 1986 Hugh van Cutsem has made English partridges his mission and through a variety of schemes has met with more success than most. There have been some blips. There was a gapes problem one year, and there is a continuous war with vermin, as Thetford Chase runs up to one of the boundaries. Stoats are an ongoing problem - where there are rabbits there are stoats and in the first year some 8,000 rabbits were accounted for - that figure is down to 2,000, but 250 stoats are still taken every year. They are indiscriminate killers taking birds of all ages. Foxes of course continue to be a major enemy of all game and ground nesting birds.

The intriguing aspect of the shoot day, is that although there are many more grey partridges on the ground than redlegs, their numbers for the two shoot days accounted for only 25% of the bag. One of the morning drives yielded over 40 birds, yet only five were English, despite a number of coveys breaking noisily over the Guns. Many more either went back, or out the side of the drive before even getting anywhere near the Guns. And that's with a skilled beating line.

“You need 200 acres for a drive and a lot of partridges on the ground in order to get sufficient  birds over the Guns.” Whereas the redlegs fly in ones and twos and are therefore a much more baggable proposition.

Gerald added: “The grey partridge is unique and we all feel that everything possible must be done to lift their numbers - there is no doubt that fostering can really help shoots of all sizes, and lift small existing populations. It has certainly worked for us."

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