The rise and rise of the redleg
The demise of the grey partridge has been mirrored by the rise of the redleg, and while the latter doesn't provide the sheer excitement of greys, they have certainly added an extra dimension to many shoots, by Rupert Godfrey.
It is hard to believe now that before the Second World War the grey partridge was the main quarry of the rough gameshooter, and walking the stubbles in September was, for many, how the season started. Changes in agriculture in the 1950s put an end to those halcyon days, and the grey partridge has struggled ever since.
Although traditional gamekeeping methods employed on the right ground can still occasionally produce big bags - a bag of 380 brace of wild partridges was shot on one Norfolk estate last season - the weather plays a crucial role in grey partridge survival, and this year's heavy rainfall in June will have put paid to many shoot owners' careful plans.
However, the demise of the grey partridge has been mirrored by the rise of the redleg, and, while the latter cannot provide the sheer adrenaline-pumping excitement of a covey of greys starbursting over a hedge, it has certainly added an extra dimension to many shoots. There are several key reasons why this has taken place.
As the season opens on September 1st, shoots can be held for at least six weeks before most pheasant shooting begins. From a commercial point of view, if the fixed costs of a keeper can be spread over more days, then the bottom line doesn't look quite so frightening. Without question, the redleg has extended the shooting season.
For many predominantly woodland shoots, the change to milder winters in the last 40 years has led to leaves remaining on the trees until well into late November, foreshortening an already brief pheasant season; for shoots like these, the redleg has proved a life saver, providing some early season days until the pheasants can be seen.
The opposite situation is those shoots which don't have much woodland, and therefore can't hold a large stock of pheasants: For them, a few new cover crops mean that they can shoot a full season. It has proved easy to set up redleg shooting: plant blocks of strategically placed maize and you're away - you don't have to wait for woodland to grow! They are adaptable birds too: they work as well on freezing moorland edge in northern Scotland as they do on the plains of La Mancha, where the temperature reaches 40 degrees.
Redlegs have proved straightforward to rear, and behave like a mini-pheasant: they go where they are driven, and have the added benefit of being able to fly straight back - unlike a pheasant which needs an hour's rest after any meaningful flight. They also stray less. Like a pheasant however they will try to evade the Guns by flying higher, and they can be flanked to take advantage of any wind.
Releasing grey partridges on a large scale has been tried by many people, but nobody has succeeded in getting a commercial return: too often they are seen once, and never again. Greys seem to be much more adaptable and self-reliant, and so can go where they want to. They also seem to have an instinct where the Guns are - and aren't - so often evade the line. In short, few shoots have managed to get returns of over 20%, which makes rearing them prohibitively expensive. Redleg returns, however, of between 50 and 60% are not uncommon, and make them a commercial success.
Redlegs are as happy on downland, flying across valleys, as on flat ground, where they can be driven over hedges. They are a boon on ground which cannot produce good pheasants, as for one of those inexplicable reasons, it is somehow acceptable to kill a partridge of a height at which to shoot a pheasant would be frowned on. I remember the Guns being told at the end of the first drive on a famous high bird shoot that the sermon we had been given about shooting low pheasants didn't apply to partridges!
They are easier to kill than pheasants, too. Firstly, they fly more slowly, and, secondly, being a smaller bird, the killing zone (ie the vulnerable head, neck and vital organs) is a much larger percentage of the bird. The midpoint of a cock pheasant is just about its parson's nose, which is why so many are hit in the rear, and not killed. Shoot halfway along a partridge and you'll hit close to its heart.
They aren't such a strong bird as a pheasant, and so don't need so much pellet power to kill them. It was interesting to see that all three Spanish Guns featured in the first issue of Fieldsports all used 7 shot, albeit in loads up to 34 grams: pattern is more important than penetration on most partridge shoots.
It is now quite incredible to reflect that it wasn't until the early 90s that anyone had much respect for redleg partridges. Up until that point most so-called redlegs in the UK were in fact chukar crosses. These were prolific egg layers but poor-to-useless in the wild. So quite understandably the game farm industry was alarmed when crosses were banned in 1993, presuming that this would be the end for reared partridges. The opposite proved true in fact, when it was discovered that though they produced a few less eggs, the pure redlegs flew far better than most could have envisaged. They had now arrived.
And the shooting field would be a much less interesting place without them.