The return of the grey partridge

How an ambitious bid to restore the fortunes of grey partridges is taking shape nicely amongst the carrots and cabbages of Pollybell Farm. By Mike Barnes.

It could be said that when Nigel Brown came across Pollybell Farm he didn't quite realise what he was letting himself in for. From a commercial perspective he had done his homework - this was 1900 hectares of potentially good ‘veg' growing land. However, grey partridges and John Dickinson had yet to rear their heads.

Now it is clear that, yes, the farm is ticking all the boxes but Nigel has also fallen under the spell of the wonderful little game bird known as the Englishman. Against the backdrop of a hugely efficient farming operation, is a monumental effort to give a helping hand to the resident population of greys.

Pollybell straddles three counties - it is a border farm for Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire on the Isle of Axeholme, an unusual ten mile expanse of fen-type country just 15 miles from Doncaster. The area is known as an ‘Isle' due to the rivers which surround it - the Trent, Tarne and Idle. There's no main road as such - it is very much a place on its own. 

With low-lying, dark peaty ground, it was drained in the 18th century by Vermyden, the brilliant engineer who also drained the Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire fens. 

Nigel Brown took on Pollybell purely for its farming potential. “I was not a fanatical shot. My father was in the artillery and having come out of the war, never again picked up a shotgun. So, I really didn't start shooting until I was 45, taking up invitations from farmers and business friends in the early 90s.”

His great-grandfather William H. Brown developed three successful businesses - making his mark as an auctioneer,  but also an agricultural merchant plus landholdings.  “There were three sons and my grandfather took on the agricultural merchants. Father followed and I joined in 1974 after qualifying as a chartered accountant.”  The company became known as Brown Butlin and by the eighties was a significant size, enabling Nigel to diversify into farming interests in the 1990s, when he took over a farm on Holbeach Marsh, a highly fertile strip of land by the Lincolnshire Wash. Here he found himself the owner of a wild pheasant shoot - by chance he had come into contact with a hitherto unsuspected source of fascination.  The wild game bird soon caught his imagination.

Meanwhile, back at Pollybell, the decision was taken in spring 1996 to bring all the sporting rights, that had previously been let out,  back in hand.  Following this, a letter happened to arrive from one of the shooting tenants, local agricultural lime merchant John Dickinson. “He said he fully understood the move,” recalls Nigel, “and that it could present the opportunity to develop and create a wild partridge shoot on the southern farms, as it used to be in the 50s and 60s. 

“I simply hadn't been aware of the shooting significance, but now I was interested. John had known the land from being a boy. So really he is to blame for all of this!” 

Having been witness to times when partridges were present in abundance, John offered his help in running days policing the farms and vermin control.Shooting was halted on 1400ha. “We didn't shoot at all for two or three years.”

But from 1997 he embraced Countryside Stewardship and over a period of five years planted 25,000 metres of hedgerows and almost 3,000 trees on the estate. Significantly 3000 metres of grass strips have been put down - in fact, there are now brood-rearing cover strips around almost every field.

From 1999 the farm started the process of conversion to organic.  Those who have gone down this route will know while organic sounds eco-friendly, it's not good news for grey partridges. The set-aside and grass clover-leys (and the necessity to cut the same) cause real problems in the breeding season, often with many nest losses. No matter how good the cover around, the birds insist on nesting where they shouldn't.  At present 500ha which have been fully converted to organic are being ‘rested' in an attempt to allow stocks of greys to recover.

“It's all a very big learning curve. We have certainly learned quite a lot, which we are very happy to share with anyone who has a partridge recovery programme of any sort. And we are still learning.

“The one real positive of the organic conversion, is that once you come out of the other side and the conversion is complete, then it would seem the cropping becomes ideal and we should get some very positive results. Meanwhile we have to regard the process as teething!

“Once we had embarked on the wild partridge route we soon realised that the scale of the operation was far too big for the way in which we were doing it. So I took the decision to employ a full-time gamekeeper, and was very lucky in finding Miles Bentley.  The previous year he was runner-up in Gamekeeper of the Year and has actually been employed by a friend as single-handed keeper in Lincolnshire.  He is responsible for 1,400ha - partly converted, partly under conversion, and with the rest likely to be converted.

“It has worked out extremely well and Miles is doing a great job.”

The advice of the former Game Conservancy Director General (and partridge guru) Dick Potts was also sought - indeed he still keeps an eye on things. A smorgasboard of management techniques have been implemented. Obviously predator control is a priority while the number of feed hoppers has been steadily increased to a current total of 230. 

Miles oversees hedge, ditch and tree management throughout the farm, and also a carefully managed grass-mowing programme. There is good communication between the farm and the keepering effort, while Miles also liaises with the local Wildlife Trust, English Nature and the Environment Agency regarding management strategy relating to the river and floodbanks. Over 2.2 miles of river and flood bank are now mowed only once a year, after nesting birds have hatched their young, which is a remarkable step forward.

The farm generally no longer uses pre- or post-harvest glyphosate to allow green stubbles to be over-wintered and the number of winter holding strips has been increased to 13 plots of maize, millet and sorghum mix and four plots of artichokes. Catch crops of mustard and stubble turnip enhance the post-harvest stubble, providing the partridge with an additional food source, shelter from the weather and more useful protection from predators.

To protect ground-nesting game birds and wildfowl, fishing rights have been withdrawn on the 2.2mile stretch of the River Idle. Potential nesting vegetation is left around buildings and uncropped areas of the farm. The largest of the fields have been broken down using either split cropping or nesting cover strips with brood-rearing mix either side.

It's a big effort, so has it seen results? The spring pairs count figures tell a story  of resounding success: 2003 - 41; 2004 - 109; 2005 - 159; 2006 - 207. These results have been achieved naturally with no releasing or brood intervention. It's certainly impressive. 

However, breeding successes have not been good this year, considered to be largely due to a combination of a dearth of insects for early broods (later broods did better) and the areas of organic conversion, where there was nesting in vulnerable areas. But the stock level remains good and while Nigel and Miles know that there are no certainties, all is in place for a good hatch next season.

And shooting? My question prompts knowing smiles from them. “We have a programme of controlled shooting,” answers Nigel. “Numbers-permitted-to-be-shot are worked out from  Autumn densities and breeding  success. In each of the last two seasons we have set a target of 100 birds from two days' shooting and, by great good fortune, we have shot almost precisely that figure both years.

“Driving them is fun - on our first shoot we had quite a reasonable showing, then the next time nothing. The day was rescued by driving the carrots. So the next year we were clever and knew the answer - we drove the carrots. Nothing! But the day picked up from there. On the second day we did bigger sweeps, but the wind was wrong, so though we saw 27 coveys, getting them to fly in the right direction was another ball game. It's all good fun.”  The odd grey was also shot on the later pheasant shoots and the total of 100 was achieved. They release 1,000 pheasants for winter shooting, though the wild pheasants are responding brilliantly to the new regime. “Ideally in the long term we would like to go all wild.

“The art of driving wild partridges has to be learnt all over again, but then so has the shooting.” 

When the birds are not in big numbers and a Gun is presented with a covey bursting over a hedgerow, the pressure is really on. “I only invite people who I know will enjoy it and who have no bag expectation. I don't like to think how much each partridge is costing,” Nigel laughs.

It is a remarkable story, for Pollybell is one of the UK's most prolific organic vegetable growers, yet set against this backdrop,  in unlikely circumstances, it is also demonstrating that so much can be done to restore the fortunes of Britain's favourite lowland gamebird. It is a brilliant effort and it seems likely to bring the success it deserves.

Miles Bentley cannot remember wanting to do anything other than become a gamekeeper. The seeds were sown when, as a youngster, he would beat on a shoot with his design engineer father. He joined a local shoot on a Youth Training Scheme, before studying game and wildlife management for three years at Sparsholt. During this time he spent 12 months on the Garynahine Estate, on the Isle of Lewis, where there were grouse, snipe, woodcock, salmon and sea-trout. The estate was developing its sporting potential.

After Sparsholt, he spent just over a year on a private shoot in Sussex, before becoming the gamekeeper for Vincent Hedley-Lewis at Corby Birkholme, near Grantham. “I was there for seven years single-handed. It was reared pheasants and partridges, a fantastic family shoot - I wouldn't have left unless it was for something like Pollybell. I wanted to work with wild game.” Ironically when he was runner-up in ‘Gamekeeper of the Year', the other finalists were two wild partridge keepers - Ted Streeter (West Barsham) and Trevor Ash (Edmondthorpe). “When the opportunity came Vincent was fully behind me and understood, which obviously helped.”

So, nearly thee years ago Miles and his wife Miriam (who now have three boys under six) made the move and have never looked back. The job is a big one, but he loves every minute of it and admits to falling under the spell of the greys. “They just get under your skin,” he explained as we drove around the farm. “They're so unpredictable, so intelligent. They seem never to be asleep as such. They're incredible birds.” Just then he spotted a young covey in the stubble, then another and a third, right on cue! We got close but they were too quick for the camera.

The habitat is impressive. The six-metre brood rearing strips around the fields are a vetch and cereal mix. There is also a large area given over to experimental mixes, while many drives and hedgerow bottoms are left to grow wild. The unmowed river banks have been a real bonus, an arrangement which was initiated with the Environment Agency.

Predation control is hugely important of course, taking around 50 foxes a year and a large number of corvids. There is no keepering to speak of on surrounding land. “I keep on top of the rabbits on the farm, but I tend to regard the hares as something for the foxes or other unwelcome visitors. While they're taking leverets they're not going for nesting partridges.

 “What we have achieved has only been possible with the farms co-operation and the enthusiasm of its manager Euan Fraser.

“Nigel is also very supportive and very keen. We are learning all the time and, like me, he very much wants to share with others what we are doing and discovering. We had nearly 50 people for a GCT farm work this summer.”

Their efforts have also been recognised with a shortlisting for the Purdy Game Awards in 2002, and as winners of the Jas Martin & Co Lincolnshire Grey Partridge Trophy and the BTO-British Sugar Bird Challenge for Business Award.  

But while Miles and Nigel are both grateful for the awards, grey partridges remain their focus - and lots of them.

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