Ask shooters what is their favourite gamebird and you will receive an array of answers. For some it is the adrenaline rush of the driven grouse, for others it is the high curling pheasant, or a French partridge with the wind behind it. However, for one Lincolnshire farmer it is the grey partridge, but not for the reasons one might imagine.
Gerald Needham farms 400 acres at Coleby, just south of Lincoln, and the grey partridge provides a focus for his passion for conservation. His farm lies on what is known locally as the ‘Lincoln Edge’, a major limestone escarpment that runs from north to south through central Lincolnshire and divides Gerald?s land between stony heathland on the top and heavier flatland below.
Gerald took over the farm from his father, and in 2006 embarked on the Entry Level Stewardship scheme before gaining the Higher Level the following year. This is a partnership with Natural England whereby help and assistance is given to improve the habitat and make it more wildlife friendly. This fits in perfectly with the grey partridge because what benefits this little bird also benefits many other species. Gerald’s farm management system is now tailored with the bird’s future in mind, but this does not mean it cannot be run efficiently and still provide a living.
Gerald comes from a sporting family. As a young man, his father Peter hunted and shot, and today, at the age of 87, he still rides with the Blankney Hunt, which is welcomed on to the farm. Gerald, on the other hand, focused on shooting and, in his 20s, decided to create a modest shoot in order to provide a few small days for family and friends. And that is how it has remained to this day, providing four or five shoot days of around 50 birds to six Guns, but with no greys on the menu.
Working with Natural England and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), Gerald monitors the number of pairs as well as chick survival rates, which he explained can be frustrating. He said: “Having done so much work to create the right environment, we would expect to see a steady increase in population, but it does not always work that way. In May 2011 we had 26 pairs and these produced 270 chicks, making me very optimistic. In May 2012 we counted 30 pairs, but due to the wet spring and summer, only 60 chicks were seen. That was a disappointing blow. This year we have 20 pairs, and though I have seen a few pairs with chicks, it is a little early to get a true picture.”
An intoxicating aroma
So, what does Gerald do to make his farm partridge-friendly? I noticed strips of what appeared to be gamecover, though this was not maize or kale but a bird mix supplied by Kings Game Cover that included sweet clover, barley, triticale, phacelia and a host of other plants that would provide cover but, more importantly, would attract insect life vital to partridge chicks in their first 10 days of life. As we stood up to our knees in a sea of flower heads, the buzzing of insects and the heady aroma was almost intoxicating, while the number of bumblebees was staggering.
One of the first tasks Gerald undertook was replacing many of the hedges that had previously been removed. Habitat loss has been blamed as one of the main causes of the birds’ decline. In the past five years, Gerald has planted one-and-a-half miles of hedging, which is now starting to provide both cover and nesting habitat. The strips are grown on a two-year rotation, or up to three if it will stand it. In addition to the shorter plants, chicory is vital, as it grows tall in its second year, is frost-resistant and provides protection from avian predators.
In the spring, meandering tracks had been mown throughout the crop to provide open spaces for birds and chicks to dry off in the morning, while at the same time not allowing sparrowhawks a straight line of attack. The strips are generally grown in rotation on either side of a hedge before being moved every third year or so. Down the side of each hedge is a field margin of grass, with one side mown before nesting time. In all, Gerald grows around 17 acres of cover that stretches from one end of the farm to the other so that birds have a safe corridor in which to move.
Gerald is a keen Shot and so are his three grown-up daughters, Kate, Holly and Harriet, who with their partners and friends love to shoot at home, particularly at Christmas. Wild game is supplemented with the release of pheasants and a few Frenchmen, ensuring they always have a few birds to shoot. Most pheasants are shot along the escarpment, or ‘cliff’ as it is known. With a prevailing wind, the birds can be spectacular. There is a disused railway line that runs through the shoot, which has become a wildlife haven, as it is relatively undisturbed. Also, Gerald has created a couple of flightponds on the farm, and the one we visited was buzzing with insects, including dragonflies.
I asked Gerald what other measures he takes specifically for greys, and he explained his strict vermin control regime. This starts with foxes from March through to June, and at the same time Larsen traps are sited around the farm. These are effective at bringing down the numbers of both carrion crows and magpies, and rats are controlled all-year-round. Winter feeding is mainly from hoppers sited around the farm, but hand feeding is also undertaken.
Gerald commented: “You have to be passionate and want to give something back. It is very satisfying. In many areas the grey partridge continues to decline, but if all farms and estates took the trouble to supply details to the GWCT Partridge Count Scheme, it could make a real difference.”
Gerald’s efforts have earned him a runner-up spot in the Jas Martin Lincolnshire Partridge Scheme, and when talking to him, it is difficult not to be enthralled by his passion. Looking around, it was clear that many other species benefit too, from the abundance of lapwings and skylarks in the summer to the myriad finches and other birds in the winter. On the day of my visit, we didn’t see any pairs with chicks. This was disappointing, but a few days later Gerald rang to tell me he had seen a pair with 14 chicks and a single adult with seven chicks. He also said that he had lost two bumblebee nests to badgers, so it was not all good news.
Successful conservation on farms is a delicate balancing act, and it cannot always be measured in financial terms. As Gerald says, there is much satisfaction to be had, but while there are many farmers who undertake similar efforts, there are also those who do not. We should all encourage them to do their bit, as our children’s shooting future depends on it.