There can be few more exciting sounds for the game shooter than the wonderful wild calls of grey partridges as they fly over the line. Sadly, it?s one that few 21st-century sportsmen have ever heard. There?s little doubt that the sight and sound of greys at Caldecote House Farm would have become no more than a fading memory, were it not for the enthusiasm and hard work of Simon Maudlin, joint winner of the Purdey Gold Award for wild game conservation in 2011. Simon won the trophy for his work in restoring the grey partridge population on his 800acre family farm.
I joined Simon for a shooting day in early December, so I could see for myself what fantastic sporting birds wild greys are. Usually Simon organises eight or nine days? shooting per season ? this was the fourth day, with the Guns all guests of Peter, Simon?s father. It was Peter who formed the shoot during the mid-1950s, and nearly all his guests have been regular annual visitors. John Frossell holds the record with 55 consecutive appearances at Caldecote, but Clive Bates isn?t far behind on 49, and several other Guns have been shooting there for nearly as long. The shoot lies close to the A1, a couple of miles from the RSPB?s headquarters at Sandy and many could remember the heady days when wild grey partridge were still abundant in this part of Bedfordshire.
The best-ever partridge bag was achieved in the shoot?s early days, when 85 brace were shot in one day. The last notable season for wild partridge was in 1976, a year still remembered for its exceptionally hot summer, weather that clearly suited wild gamebirds. It also happens to be the year Simon was born.
The meet was at the farm in the village of Upper Caldecote, and before we moved off for the first drive, Simon told me about the day. Five, possibly six drives, were planned, before stopping for lunch at 2pm. This is a traditional three-course affair, cooked jointly by Simon?s mother, Josie, and his wife Ruth. It?s not just for the Guns, as everyone who takes part, including beaters and pickersups, sits down together.
The number of grey partridge to be shot each season is determined by the autumn counts, Simon explained. This year, there were reckoned to be 375 greys, the best count yet, thus allowing a harvest of approximately 35 brace. The first three shoots had produced 26 brace, but I could tell that Simon was confident that not too many would be shot on this day, as by this stage in the season they are not only exceedingly wary, but also fastflying and far from easy to shoot. Pheasants and redlegged partridges were to be the principal quarry, with no ground game, but the Guns were allowed to shoot at grey partridges if they presented a memorable shot.
As we travelled in the trailer to the first drive, Two Bush, I learned a little about the history of the farm, which had been bought by Simon?s grandfather 75 years previously. The farm was then given over to market gardening, a land use that suited grey partridge, as the birds flourished ? so much so that everyone took them for granted. Their sudden disappearance was due to loss of habitat, and though a few birds struggled on, there would not be a shootable surplus again for many years. Chukars were released as a substitute for the greys, but they never provided satisfactory sport, especially compared to the grey partridge they had replaced.
Simon went to agricultural college at Sparsholt College in Hampshire. It was one of his lecturers there, Mike Gill, who inspired him to improve the biodiversity of the family farm, something he has been doing with passion ever since he came back to work at Caldecote in 2000. His aim is simple: to make the farm a haven for game and wildlife, yet at the same time to farm as efficiently as possible.
It wasn?t until 2002 that Simon took over responsibility for the shoot from the elderly volunteer gamekeeper, Len. This new role involved releasing pheasants and red-legged partridges, as well as tackling all aspects of predator control. There was a remnant population of wild grey partridges but, as Simon recalls, ?numbers were worryingly low?.
Working on the farm and managing the shoot took up much of Simon?s time, so it came as a great relief in 2004 when his friend Melvin Wright volunteered to help with the trapping. Melvin is a true enthusiast, and there?s little doubt that were it not for his hard work, the partridge population would never have been restored. Melvin is also a graduate of Sparsholt, having completed the first gamekeepering course there in 1973-74. Despite a full-time job, he is prepared to get up at 6am throughout the year to check his traps and snares.
His detailed records speak for themselves. Over an eight-year period he has accounted for 239 foxes, 604 carrion crows, 926 rats and 538 magpies. Couple this with the extensive habitat improvement undertaken by Simon, which includes replacing hedgerows removed 50 years ago, installing beetle banks and planting wildlife holding covers, and it?s hardly surprising that the grey partridge population has bounced back. So too, have the songbirds, with flourishing populations of skylarks, yellowhammers and linnets, and even breeding corn buntings.
I walked with the Guns to the pegs for the first drive. We were under strict instructions to be as quiet as possible, having been warned that grey partridges don?t tolerate any noise. A small covey of four took off from under our feet, the cock uttering his short, sharp call. Then, almost as soon as the drive had begun, the sky was full of them. Several shots were fired, but as far as I could see, the coveys flew on unscathed, having taken everyone by surprise.
An autumn sport
At the second drive, Courses, the greys proved even less cooperative, with two coveys flying out the back and going nowhere near the Guns. It was a reminder of why shooting grey partridge has always been regarded as an autumn sport, for by the winter the coveys are as wild as hawks. They cannot be driven into gamecover in the way that redlegs can, for they will always fly rather than run. However, though the greys had departed, there were sufficient pheasants and redlegs to give the Guns good sport.
They were also there on the third drive, Kent Cover, a scenic corner of the farm, made all the more attractive on this December day by the low sun, illuminating the oaks that still held their bronze leaves. As I was shooting with a camera rather than a gun, I enjoyed the sunshine, but this did create an extra challenge for the Guns, who had a good excuse for missing. There were a couple of coveys of greys, as expected, but they slipped out of the side of the drive, escaping unsaluted.
One of Simon?s successes at Caldecote has been the community?s involvement in his project ? there?s scarcely a person in the village to whom he hasn?t spoken and who isn?t aware of what he has achieved on the farm, so he has no difficulty in recruiting an unpaid but dedicated beating team. After the third drive, everyone stopped for a celebration of the shoot?s success in the Purdey awards, with sausage rolls and champagne. Suitably refreshed, the Guns lined out for the fourth drive, Reads, which had produced some spectacular grey partridges on the last outing. They must have learned their lesson, for it was high redlegs that provided the sport this time ? where the greys had gone was a mystery. The answer turned out to be the fifth drive, Pada. Here, a vast field of maize had been cut a few days previously. The greys appeared at the start of the drive, giving most Guns the chance of a memorable shot, or an equally memorable miss. For most, it was the latter.
Challenging native birds
Efficient beating allowed an extra drive at the end, Flitton Scar. This was primarily a pheasant drive, and gave everyone who had been beaten by the greys a chance to show they could hit a flying bird after all. The drive was a success, as it helped bring the day?s bag up to the magic 100. Just five greys had been shot, all cocks ? a reminder of what sporting and challenging birds our native partridge are. I can understand now why our grandfathers regarded the redleg?s sporting properties with such scorn: one wild grey has to be worth 50 redlegs.