The rise and fall of the grey partridge

Grey partridges

From being the number one game bird to its virtual disappearance from much of our countryside, Rupert Godfrey tracks the rise and fall of the grey partridge as a sporting quarry.

From being the number one game bird to its virtual disappearance from much of our countryside, Rupert Godfrey tracks the rise and fall of the grey partridge as a sporting quarry.

It's hard to believe that 200 years ago the grey partridge was once a much more common gamebird than the pheasant, and that, annually, probably only rabbits were killed in greater numbers. Moreover up until 50 years ago, partridges accounted for more cartridges expended than pheasants. A poor breeding year was bad news for cartridge manufacturers.

Until partridge driving began, huge numbers were killed by walking up, often in some unexpected parts of the country. At Netherby, in Cumbria, for example, in 1869, 6,602 were killed in 49 days walking, over 22,000 acres. This was compared to 3,385 shot at Holkham in 61 days, on 11,500 acres. Driving started at Holkham in 1877, but not at Netherby until 1894.

The biggest daily bags, walking up, were not killed, as one might expect, in the Eastern Counties of England, but in Forfarshire, where 10 Guns killed 376.5 brace on 20th September 1870, followed by 266 1/2 and 343.5 brace on the following two days. The best Norfolk had to offer was two days at Buckenham - Lord Ashburton's estate - with 314 brace in 1858, and 332 the following year. The standard of shooting, given the vaguaries of guns, powder and shot must have been phenomenal.

It's disputed as to whether partridges were first driven at Chippenham in Cambridgeshire, or at Heveningham in Suffolk, where, it is recorded the system was instituted in 1845. What is beyond doubt is that, as with grouse, driving produced more birds to shoot, encouraging greater numbers per acre, by killing off the old birds, as the younger ones were not so aggressively territorial. Charles Allington, the author of Partridge Driving, described how one pair of very old partridges took sole possession of a hedge. He had these old birds killed, whereupon ten young pairs nested in the same length of hedge.

Soon, all the major estates were driving partridges: most simply with wild stock, though birds were artificially reared in large numbers on some estates, most notably Elveden. Again, some of the biggest bags were in unexpected counties: the Duke of Portland's estate at Welbeck in Nottinghamshire saw a day of 739 brace in 1906, and his neighbour W. Hollins killed 752 brace the same year. Lord Londesborough, on his two Yorkshire estates in the East and North Ridings, and Lord Stamford at Enville, in Staffordshire, both produced high volumes, the former's keeper, Robbins, being highly regarded.

Bags were often recorded for several days shooting for one party, and in 1887, The Grange - Lord Ashburton's Hampshire estate - claimed the four-day record, with 2,038 brace killed by seven Guns, one of whom Lord Walsingham described as ‘weak': he only killed five birds on one of the days! He wrote: “No redlegs, all grey birds. Fifteen to eighteen short drives each day. I got 340 the first day, my best drives 42, 62, 74. Another good gun would have made a difference of 600 in the week.” In 1897, on the same estate, Walsingham was again one of the six Guns who killed 1768 brace in three days.

The keeper at The Grange, Marlowe, was regarded as one of the very best, having been ‘mentored' at Buckenham by James Woodrow, one of the earliest great partridge keepers. Like all good partridge men, Marlowe concentrated solely on the partridges, and let the pheasants take care of themselves. His method of ensuring optimum numbers was to add eggs to all the wild nests to make the number up to at least 20. To do this, accurate records had to be kept of each nest's location, and when the hen had started laying, as it was obviously critical that all the eggs hatched together.

On some estates this was taken a stage further, and all the partridge eggs replaced by clear pheasant eggs. To minimise nest losses, 25 chipped partridge eggs were replaced under the hen, sometimes as little as ten days after she started sitting.

Holkham was always up in the top tier, and in 1905 a four-day shoot yielded 2,374.5 brace, with a best day of 8,35.5 brace. This remained the record until the extraordinary success of Joe Nickerson in Lincolnshire half a century later (2,119 wild partridges on October 3, 1952 - total bag 2,342).

One of the more unusual shoots was Six Mile Bottom, when it was in General Hall's ownership: he liked to shoot his partridges at the end of January, for two reasons: firstly, he reckoned he could get the Guns he wanted, as they were unlikely to receive any better invitation at that point in the season, and, secondly, he only shot his ground once, and, as by this time the greys had mostly paired up, they came over the Guns in a much more killable fashion than early season coveys. In 1869, for example, four consecutive days produced one bird shy of 1,000 brace.

Producing the partridges was one thing; killing them another. The top shots of the late 19th century seem to have been pretty flexible as to the quarry they could despatch (the only one particularly singled out was R. H. Rimington Wilson, who was the top grouse shot, but not reckoned so good at pheasants and partridges). The same names crop up regularly: Lord Ripon killing 240 partridges on one drive (though this was on Baron Hirsch's estate in Hungary); Maharajah Duleep Singh killing 780 greys in a day with 1,000 shots at Elveden (part of a solo bag of 1,265 brace he shot during nine of the first 15 days of September 1876) - he was regarded as the quickest shot in England in getting his gun to his shoulder and his shots off, and one of the most accurate, too.

Lord Walsingham reckoned it impossible to kill four from a covey in front, and aimed to kill two in front, and hope for a straggler behind with his second gun. A. J. Stuart-Wortley - author of ‘The Partridge' in the ‘Fur and Feather' book series - agreed with this: “Of course, in driving you must shoot sooner, if you mean to try and kill two in front of you... You may kill four birds out of a covey, but to allow you to do this they must either be streaming in column, with a long distance between the first bird and the last, or they must break up on clearing the fence and fly more or less round you, and it must be early in the season, when they fly slower. To kill, late in the year, four birds out of a covey that comes straight over your head, all more or less abreast and with any pace on, is to my thinking impossible; I have never seen it done, and never expect to.”

After the First World War, and the difficult economic times in the inter-war period, there was much less emphasis on shooting big bags, and, although there were good partridge years, changing agricultural patterns were already starting to make life difficult for the grey. These difficulties were compounded by the Second World War, and the austerity which followed, and even though there were pockets of resistance, the grey has been under intense pressure ever since. Even Joe Nickerson, who managed to produce, and shoot, unheard of quantities of wild greys in 1950s Lincolnshire, saw the writing on the wall, and shifted his partridge shooting to Spain.

Ever more intensive agriculture (and even the recent changes to set-aside); increasing problems with predators - especially raptors; together with the spread of the badger, mean that despite the efforts being made by the GWCT and some enlightened landowners, the grey's future still looks bleak.

Recommended reading

The Big Shots by Jonathan Ruffer (Quiller)

The Partridge by A.J. Stuart-Wortley (second-hand in Fur, Feather & Fin series).

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