n only six years, the wild English partridge population on the Norfolk Estate at Arundel, in West Sussex, has grown from three breeding pairs to 262 pairs. Last year, the September counts listed 1,217 birds on an area of 2,640 acres, meaning a shootable surplus of 112. This achievement is all the more extraordinary in the context of the UK?s grey partridge population, which has declined by 86 per cent in the past 60 years and makes the project a worthy winner of this year?s Purdey Awards Gold medal presented to the Duke of Norfolk at an awards ceremony in London last week. Purdey judge Jonathan Kennedy said: ?This is one of the best entries ever for delivering from start to finish conservation and high-quality shooting.?

Starting from scratch

The chalk downland of West Sussex was a stronghold for English partridges in the 1950s when they were commonplace, but the recovery project started because
the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust?s (GWCT) former director was concerned that grey partridges were about to become extinct in the region?s GWCT study area, where they have been counted since the 1960s. He alerted the Duke of Norfolk to the problem and they set about implementing an action plan. In the spring of 2003, there were only three wild pairs on the Norfolk Estate and in 2004, there were only two pairs after a hen was killed by a walker?s dog. This left counts so low that nine pairs from genuinely wild stock were brought from Norfolk. Since then, however, there have been no releases.

Taking the land in hand

Of the four farms in the project ? North Stoke, Wepham, Peppering and Parham ? only Wepham was in hand at the start and the tenant farmers had the shooting rights. It was essential that all came under the same management for the project to work. It was only in 2007 that this was achieved, so in its complete form the project has only been going for three years, making it all the more remarkable.

Changing farming practice was key. The modern plan of block farming was replaced by a traditional farming system with smaller fields planted in rotation incorporating winter wheat, winter and spring barley, oilseed rape, peas, stubble turnips and grass leys. This was combined with a flock of 1,100 breeding ewes. In addition, Norfolk Estate entered an environmentally sensitive area agreement that was transformed into a 10-year Higher Level Stewardship scheme. This included 10m conservation headlands with broad leaf weeds encouraging insects on which the chicks feed, and 6m cover strips, which give protection from raptors. Fifteen kilometers of new hedges have been planted and beetle banks created in the centre of fields.

Biodiversity benefits

As a consequence of the shoot project, biodiversity on the Norfolk Estate has bucked the national trend of decline and has not only halted, but has been reversed. Many endangered species have recovered to former levels. The estate is of national importance due to the rarity of its farmland flowers. Thanks to the partridge project, 41 species have now been restored, including prickly poppy, narrow-fruited corn salad and cornflower.

Plant bugs and leaf beetles have returned to 1940s levels and bush crickets, grasshoppers, and butterflies are gradually increasing. One hundred and four species of bird are found on the estate, including 23 out of the 52 red-listed species in the UK. Five of those ? lapwing, skylark, grey partridges, corn bunting and song thrush ? have shown significant increases. Grey partridge numbers are now at 1959 levels and lapwing, skylark and corn bunting numbers are at early-1970s levels.

Birds of prey are also increasing. Five species breed in the area and a further five are seen on migration or in winter. Three species of owl breed and a further two species are seen in winter. The only species to show no sign of increase is the turtle dove, and the meadow pipit is still in decline and almost extinct.

Shooting success

The project employs one head partridge keeper, one full-time underkeeper and a part-time keeper, who was taken on to control predation on the farm at North Stoke. Their work is vital to the success of the project. Last year was the first time that there was a shootable surplus. One day?s driven shooting was held on 12 October on the Peppering Shoot with six Guns. The bag was 56 brace of wild grey partridges. In the future, the estate wants to build the wild grey stock to 350 pairs. If they reach this target, it would be sustainable to shoot 500 brace most years, depending on the weather.

South Downs sanctuary

The Duke?s aim with the project is to show what can be done in a traditional
wild partridge area and to encourage other landowners and shooting tenants to add their own wild partridge shoots with the objective of creating a nationally important wild partridge area on the South Downs. This will not only bring huge conservation benefits for wildlife, but also demonstrate how shooting and conservation work together. The Duke of Norfolk said: ?With the large amounts of grant money currently available under the Higher Level Stewardship scheme, there has never been a better time to re-establish some of the old partridge manors in England and the project of the Norfolk Estate at Arundel, hopes to help to show the way.?