The importance of grey partridges

Grey partridges

Mark Hudson looks at the English partridge, and considers the importance and significance of this charismatic species to the British countryside and to shooting.

It's no accident that the logo of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, (formerly The Game Conservancy Trust) features a grey partridge. In the four decades after the Second World War, the population fell by 80%. No other wild game species has suffered such a devastating decline. The genesis behind the creation of what has evolved into the Trust was a severe outbreak of the disease strongylosis among greys way back in 1931. 

I think of the grey partridge as the gamebird equivalent of the proverbial canary in the coalmine. The wild population of greys is as good an indicator as any of the harmony between arable farming and our native wildlife. 

But if the national population of greys continues to decline there is a risk that calls to remove it from the quarry list will gain support. We have argued successfully in the past that it is shooting estates that hold the majority of the population. 

During the 19th century the greys became a favourite quarry, particularly in eastern England, but the collapse in their numbers had nothing to do with their status for sportsmen. Rather, as our then pioneering research revealed, it was the intensification of agriculture in the 1950s and 60s; the poorly appreciated effects of herbicide on insect numbers (chick food) that had such a devastating impact. The decline in the number of gamekeepers meant more predation of greys during the nesting season. 

Today our habitat management techniques, including predator control, have conclusively shown how to reverse that decline. Since 2001 the population of greys has increased 11 times at one of our project sites in Hertfordshire. The recent success of our count scheme also adds powerful weight to our argument:  properties participating in our scheme and implementing our grey partridge prescriptions have seen a 40% increase in numbers. The vast majority of those properties run a shoot on their land. 

We are keen to spread the word about this remarkable success story. This month we are therefore organising the first ever national conservation conference on the grey partridge to highlight our findings. 

We have shown what can be achieved but on a relatively small scale. It's now important for the game shooting community to rise to the challenge. We need many more farmers and landowners to get involved. Our conservation leaflet (available via www.gct.org.uk) sets out how farmers and game shooters can help, not least in ensuring that guns are properly briefed to avoid greys during redleg drives. 

In broadening the recovery of the grey partridge not only will we restore the population of this wonderful bird but in so doing we will be able to demonstrate the essential role that game management plays in nature conservation as a whole.

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