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The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) recently announced the completion of its landmark five-year Grey Partridge Recovery Project at Royston, in Hertfordshire. As lead partner for the grey partridge Biodiversity Action Plan, the GWCT set up the recovery project to demonstrate the feasibility of restoring numbers of wild grey partridges on ordinary farmland. By the end of the project, grey partridge numbers reached the target of 18.4 pairs per square kilometre, which is an extremely positive outcome, particularly as it equates to a 640 per cent rise since intensive management started in 2002.

Following decades of scientific research, in the spring of 2001 the GWCT started to investigate the potential of setting up a demonstration project to test the best practical ways of restoring this once common farmland bird. An area south of Royston, in North Hertfordshire, was selected as a site that would suit the project’s objectives best. It was decided that a core area of 1,000ha would make up the demonstration site, with a further 1,000ha used as a reference area. The demonstration site would be intensively keepered for the benefit of wild birds,mainly the grey partridge, and the reference area would be used to monitor any changes in local game numbers.

Six farms were selected to make up the demonstration site, with a further six farms making up the reference area. These farmed areas, which are nearly all arable, range in size from 36ha to 339ha. A minimum amount of keepering was already being carried out on the demonstration site, while on the reference area the keepering varied from none on three of the farms to some good part-time work on one, as well as some large-scale releasing on two others.

Based on the landscape, farming and management, we predicted that we should be able to achieve a spring density of 18.6 partridge pairs per 100ha. The management regime included habitat creation, year-round predation control targeted at foxes, stoats, rats, crows and magpies, and supplementary feeding of wheat in hoppers from autumn to spring (at least two hoppers per grey partridge pair). We counted the partridges in March (spring pair counts) and just after harvest (autumn counts). The sex of all grey partridge adults was recorded, as well as the number of young birds present in each covey in the autumn.

After the 2001 harvest, stubble counts of grey partridges were carried out across the project area. The count figures showed that grey partridge numbers were extremely low. Even on the best site within the demonstration area only 11 young greys were counted. The initial autumn count in 2001 amounted to 52 grey partridges, 109 redlegs and 66 pheasants in the demonstration area,and 85 grey partridges, 78 redlegs and 13 pheasants in the reference area.

At the beginning of 2002, gamekeeping switched from our Allerton Project farm at Loddington, in Leicestershire, and intensive predation control started on the demonstration area at Royston in March 2002.

Off to a good start

The first year of the project got off to a really good start. In May and June there was only 59.5mm and 37mm of rain, and by the end of June 10 redleg broods were seen, plus three grey partridge broods and 48 pheasant broods. July turned out to be the cloudiest and wettest since 1988, however, but a further 38 game broods were seen. In that first year of active management we were delighted that the post-harvest counts had jumped considerably on the demonstration area to 216 young greys, 96 young redlegs and 253 young pheasants.

In 2003 we saw another increase in the wild game population, which was helped by the warmest June since 1976. This positive pattern continued to the end of 2006, when the demonstration area produced 876 grey partridges, 773 redlegs and 522 pheasants. There was also in the region of 1,000 brown hares running around the 1,000ha site. To thin down the redlegs and pheasants we held four shoots and finished the season with 320 redlegs and 232 pheasants in the bag.

At the beginning of 2007, the Grey Partridge Recovery Project looked set for a bumper year. The spring count figures were good and we monitored 184 pairs of grey partridges and 182 redleg pairs. We just needed a few months of decent weather. But this didn’t happen, and the weather broke several records as the year progressed, with the spring and summer being recorded as the wettest since 1912. Despite the wet conditions, we did have some good broods and 119 chicks were known to have hatched by the end of July.

The post-harvest count produced 333 old grey partridges, 503 young greys, 328 old redlegs, 214 young redlegs and 106 hen pheasants, which produced 283 young. But numbers on the reference area were less than a quarter of those on the demonstration area in both spring and autumn. Another factor potentially to affect the prosperity of grey partridges was the reduction of set-aside to zero. This has been a valuable tool for habitat creation at Royston and our studies showed that it was set-aside as winter cover that suffered most, falling by 82 per cent on the demonstration area and 93 per cent on the reference area between 2007 and 2008.

Hitting targets

In the five years of running this project we have brought the density of grey partridges on the demonstration area to within a whisker of our initial prediction. Though we suffered a poor summer in 2007, the autumn numbers were 11 times higher than at the start of the project and this was a great cause for celebration.

As 2009 was the final year of the project, we hoped to finish with a good breeding season, and this time we got one. The weather in May was kind, with only 38mm of rain, and June was also mainly good. By 1 August, we were aware that 37 redleg broods, 29 grey partridge broods and 45 pheasant broods had

hatched. This gave a post-harvest count of 788 wild grey partridges, 552 redlegs and 382 pheasants.

This has clearly shown that given the right kind of help and a reasonable summer, a falling stock can bounce back. It happens all the time with grouse.

Malcolm Brockless has keepered the GWCT’s Grey Partridge Recovery Project since it started in 2002.

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