Neville Kingdon, who has been running the GWCT’s Partridge Count Scheme (PCS) since 2005, is confident that grey partridges can become a familiar sight on UK farms once more. However, it is wholly reliant on the involvement and support of the shooting community that still hold on to some greys. He said, “Readers will be aware of the remarkable success of many large shooting estates reported over the past few years. These estates have worked extremely hard in getting there, but they do not reflect the majority of shoots in this country.
“Achieving a national recovery requires a national response, and what we need are the thousands of smaller shoots and farms that currently might have just two or three pairs on their land to join the scheme. By increasing their wild birds to 5, 10 or even 20 pairs, the cumulative effect would produce a spectacular national recovery of the species. This would be an extraordinary accomplishment and one that we could all be extremely proud of achieving.”
The first step in achieving this ambition is for our farms and shoots to join the PCS and give a few hours during spring and autumn to count their ground. Since 1933 the PCS has collected information on the annual abundance and breeding success of grey partridges. It also provides feedback information to participants to help them better understand what is influencing the number of partridges on their land. The PCS has become one of the largest farmer/ keeper-led monitoring schemes in Europe.
Neville said, “The future of the grey partridge rests in the hands of individuals on the ground through the management measures that they implement. Having farms and shoots monitor their own partridges is vitally important to judge the success of habitat improvement and other measures they have implemented, and it also helps to establish a national picture on partridge recovery.”
Who can take part? The PCS needs farmers, keepers and other land managers who are interested in helping conserve grey partridge on their ground. There is no ‘minimum number’ of how many partridges you need to join, nor do you have to be interested in them as a quarry species.
The requirements of the scheme simply involve undertaking partridge counts twice a year. The spring count measures breeding abundance while the autumn count measures breeding success. Counts are done in early morning and/or late evening (the GWCT will provide detailed instructions on how to count). Partridges are not difficult to count. In general, they are well wedded to their home patch, and they are likely to be seen in much the same place day after day. Provided a vehicle is used to get around without frightening them, both spring pairs and autumn coveys are easy to find.
❚ Forms and instructions on how to count in a standardised and systematic way.
❚ Site-specific results of density trends, survival rates, nesting and brood-rearing success to help identify what factors are limiting numbers and inform management and habitat plans.
❚ A twice-yearly newsletter containing both national and regional summaries of count results, as well as news, advice and other GWCT partridge research.
❚ In most regions, partridge groups have been established. Meetings include talks by GWCT advisors and research staff, and usually include a farm visit or walk to see partridge conservation in practice.
The GWCT is not only interested in the places that have lots of partridges. Every partridge really does count, and most PCS contributors are looking after small numbers. Keeping tabs on these widespread populations of just a few birds, and improving their fortunes by a modest amount is the real way forward, and helps to prove that those who manage land for game really do care about conservation. It also means that we know where there are few or no birds, so that we can identify them as places where increased effort is needed to expand their current range.
The 2011 autumn partridge results were encouraging. Despite UK summer temperatures being the coolest since 1993, plus above average rainfall during the main hatching period in June, the PCS received 757 counts and recorded 56,361 birds, which was an impressive 18 per cent increase from the 47,862 birds recorded in the previous year. This figure reflects a good summer level of productivity and capitalised on the good pair numbers of the preceding spring in 2011.
This latest spring count recorded over 12,000 pairs, which when considered against the estimated UK population of 50-60,000, means PCS participants are seeing a significant proportion. What the PCS needs now is knowledge of where the remaining greys are and to extend the successes it is seeing locally across a much greater area of UK farmland.
To further boost partridge numbers regionally and to ensure that grey partridge enthusiasts are getting the right advice and support, the GWCT has established regional grey partridge groups across the country.The aim of the groups is to meet twice a year to share ‘best practice’ advice with other members of the group and to benefit from areas of research that particularly help greys. In addition, the GWCT awards an impressive annual regional trophy to the farm or estate that is considered to have made the biggest effort to boost grey partridge numbers in the region.
TO SHOOT OR NOT TO SHOOT?
On most farmland the grey partridge has become locally extinct or uncommon at best. In this circumstance, partridges should no longer be shot and all effort made to avoid accidental losses during shoot days. The only exception is where effective management is producing a shootable surplus. In good breeding years, some farms and shoots do produce surpluses, and provided that no more than 30 per cent of the autumn population is shot, the bag is sustainable. However, care should always be taken and if you don’t know exactly how many birds you have, you can’t know if you have enough to shoot sustainably.
SIX GOLDEN RULES FOR GAME SHOOTERS:
❚ Do not shoot wild grey partridges if you have fewer than 20 birds per 250 acres (100 hectares) in the autumn. Below this level the population has little ability to compensate for shooting losses.
❚ Stop shooting wild grey partridges as soon as the threshold of 20 birds per 250 acres (100 hectares) is reached, for the same reason.
❚ Avoid shooting the birds after the end of December. Partridges can start to pair up in the New Year and shooting them at this time reduces the breeding stock.
❚ Never shoot at grey partridges that are in pairs.
❚ With driven redleg or pheasant shooting, take special precautions to ensure that wild greys are not shot at the same time: warn guns if grey partridges are likely to be on a drive, and you could also arrange a system of whistles for beaters to warn guns that greys have been flushed.
❚ Do not shoot grey partridges at all unless you also take steps to conserve them.
Through the involvement of those participating in the Partridge Count Scheme, we are demonstrating that grey partridge recovery is achievable. But more help is needed to expand this progress across the UK. Reversing the national decline in wild partridge numbers and expanding their range back to areas where they used to occur is possible, but we need your help. Please get involved or encourage your friends, family or other neighbours to take part. Every one counts.
To get involved in the Partridge Count Scheme or for more information and conservation guides, contact Neville Kingdon on 01425 651066 or email nkingdon@ gwct.org.uk