Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Partridge plan aims to restore numbers to countryside

The Game Conservancy Trust has launched a five-point plan to help save the Grey Partridge, a once far more widely encountered species throughout Britain than at present.

In what has been the wettest summer since records began in 1914, Grey Partridges are suffering. The species has already undergone an enormous 86 per cent decline in its numbers over the past 30 years and is currently on the brink of disappearing from many areas in Britain.

Dr Nick Sotherton, Head of Research with the trust, commented: "The wet summer has been a total wash-out for young partridge chicks struggling for survival, and urgent conservation action needs to be taken by all those with a responsibility for managing the British countryside."

A number of factors have contributed to the dramatic decline in the Grey Partridge population, including the introduction of pesticides and herbicides into modern-day farming practices (resulting in a loss of important food for young partridges), as well as habitat loss.

The trust also claims that predation is a significant factor in the decline of Grey Partridges, citing the fact that the number of gamekeepers providing ‘safe areas’ has fallen by 50 per cent over the last 30 years. Some of the trust’s studies have shed light on the importance of predator maintainence, and in a six-year experiment on Salisbury Plain the control of predators increased Grey Partridge spring breeding numbers by 35 per cent per annum, resulting in increased numbers in August of 75 per cent each year.

Dr Sotherton stated: “Without the right sort of habitat, partridges and their young have nowhere to hide and are therefore extremely vulnerable to predation. Many predators are opportunistic, and as a result an entire family can be knocked out in one go. However, predator control needs to be selective and only carried out when necessary.”

At one point there were in excess of one million Grey Partridges in the British countryside, but by the beginning of the 1990s this figure had plummeted to 145,000. Today the trust estimates that this figure has halved again, leading to the new five-point plan which identifies the following key actions:

  • Create habitat – partridges require cover for nesting and brood rearing, as well as food and shelter. Land managers and farmers can benefit fiscally under the Government’s Entry Level Scheme (ELS) and Higher Level Scheme for habitat creation for Grey Partridge, as well as other farmland bird species.
  • Carry out predator control – ground-nesting partridges are vulnerable to a wide range of predators, and large losses can occur when hens are on the nest.
  • Provide additional food during lean winter months by installing suitable feeders in strategic areas.
  • Keep counting – to encourage participation in trust’s Grey Partridge Count Scheme, the largest monitoring scheme in Europe and already demonstrating a 40 per cent increase in Grey Partridge numbers on sympathetically managed land.
  • Be selective with sprays – 30-year research into the impact of insecticides has established there are devastating effects on chicks which are dependent on insect food just after the hatching stage.

But according to Nick Sotherton, it’s not all doom and gloom for Grey Partridges: “We now have more than 1,000 people counting partridges across the country. In addition, they are making an astonishing recovery on our Grey Partridge Recovery Project on farmland near Royston in Hertfordshire. Since the introduction of habitat management, predator control and feeding, there has been an extraordinary six-fold increase in Grey Partridges. But a lot more needs to be done to reverse the national decline. We hope this message today will act as the catalyst that will inspire more people to get involved in saving this delightful gamebird.”

For a copy of The Game Conservancy Trust’s free fact sheets spelling out how to restore wild Grey Partridge numbers, please contact: Louise Shervington at the trust on 01425 651002 or via email: lshervington@gct.org.uk.

Photo: Grey Partridge by Laurie Campbell