Perdix perdix provided great sport but the redleg has taken over - it's a different quarry and should be treated as such, believes Alex Keeble
British driven partridge shooting took over from walked-up sport that occurred in the 1700s, with the biggest bags being obtained from the 1850s onwards. These were predominately English partridges because, though the redlegs were introduced around 1770 by Lord Hertford and Lord Rendlesham to Suffolk, that bird’s popularity didn’t take hold until the 1950s.
Most estates waited until around October before starting their English partridge shoots to allow the wild young birds to mature. Partridge shooting relied on wild birds having broods, much like grouse shooting. Though methods such as the ‘Euston system’ were adopted to increase productivity, they were still reliant on the weather, habitat, predator control and the abundance of insects.
During the Edwardian period, greys were the mainstay of our partridge shooting in the country; my previous employer from Suffolk recalled when they used to shoot pre-war that every field was full of English partridges. Those were the days before huge agricultural fields, having hedges removed and 20 smaller fields turned into one.
The origins of driven partridge shooting
It has been suggested driven partridge shooting began on Lord Huntingfield’s estate at Heveningham, Suffolk, during the 1850s. The drives on the estate changed from year to year to follow the cropping patterns, as game cover was yet to be planted for driven shooting in large acreages. Mangolds, turnips, potatoes and kale were the main crops used for driving.
Pushing the coveys
Driving English partridges relied on pushing the coveys into a root crop or cover, then standing the Guns behind a tall hedge and flushing the birds over it. If the crops were soaking wet, the birds would not favour them and, even when pushed into them, would skulk out the sides.
Grey partridges tend to starburst over a hedge in all directions, making them a very sporting quarry; the redlegs that fly over the hedge tend to follow the same line of flight. The fields were driven so each drive was supplemented with additional coveys — the best method was to have the coveys scattered in among the cover to stop large flushes occurring.
As with pheasant driving, the beaters were told to stop when a covey flushed over the Gun line; a whistle or horn would be used to finish the drive. I have visited modern shoots that try to adopt the same method of shooting grey partridges over hedges using redlegs — with disappointing results. They are a different sporting quarry altogether and should be driven with different techniques.
Red-legged partridge releasing came into fashion with the demise of the greys. The redlegs had a greater ability to breed successfully than the English bird and were easier to drive and run. The chukar partridges were introduced for sporting purposes until it became illegal in 1992. For many years pure birds and crosses with redlegs were released, the cross being called an ogridge.
Crossing the birds increased productivity and flying ability but now only pure redlegs are released. Until recently, they were sourced from French stock but Spanish birds have now become popular. Whether there are huge differences in flight or holding ability is still in dispute.
I have released both and have yet to see significant difference between the two. But sourcing a different stock to supplement our current wild birds should help breeding success.
Red-legged partridge driving depends on a variety of factors, including wind direction, topography and their home base/release pen area. Once settled, redlegs find the area they wish to live in and can usually only be moved in the vicinity of where they know. Modern partridge releasing relies on creating a pen using sections in an area where the birds are needed, with poults of around 14 to 18 weeks being housed there for a few days before release.
Predation pressures can have a huge effect on where the birds live, with foxes being the worst culprit, moving coveys to different areas of the estate. High losses can be incurred after release from predation so fox control must be high on the agenda to keep a healthy stock on the ground. Farming disturbances can also move coveys, with machines working late into the night disrupting the birds and scattering them into nearby fields.
Wind is a huge factor in driven partridge shooting . A strong wind into the face of a drive usually has the effect of making the birds either fly very low into it, or fly up and head back downwind away from the line of Guns. The same applies to a strong crosswind; the birds will fly out of the cover and swing downwind. Guns will need to move to stop the birds heading the wrong way from the drive.
Flankers can be used where the Guns would have stood to curl the birds the correct way. If the coveys generally tend to fly down a hedge line or tree belt, a strong wind can change their habits or make them fly low; making adjustments to where the Guns need to be placed will therefore be needed. The wind can make a partridge drive become a real asset to a shoot, regardless of topography, if driven correctly.
A flat field can show sporting birds if the wind is up and used to full effect. Driving them into the wind to start with can help them climb and turn downwind.
The red-legged partridge has been released in various terrains across the country to create game shooting with various levels of targets. Typically, modern estates release large numbers into a well-situated game cover crop that will act as their home base; hill-released partridges utilise the bracken cover and can be shot as tall sporting birds or over butts similar to grouse.
The ideal partridge shoots may have a series of large grass-covered valleys in which a cover crop is planted either side on the top. Driving one piece of game cover towards the other, with the Guns at the bottom, then turning the birds back, can give two drives, utilising the number of birds in the area.
A key difference between grey and red-legged partridges is that you can run redlegs a lot further than you can greys. Redlegs can be blanked from nearby covers into the main drive, the only problem being if they fly from one cover to another as they can be exhausted by the time they reach the Gun line. As with pheasants, partridges need time to regain their strength after flying so shooting them again straight after can give poor results.
Redlegs can also harbour in the woodlands later in the season, flushing out along with the pheasants creating a different quarry target. Long, narrow game covers alongside a thick hedge are a popular choice for creating a drive because large quantities of birds can hold in the crop. They can be driven consistently over the Gun line, creating a long steady stream of shooting.
Red-legged partridge shooting is a popular format of game shooting and can give the sportsman a huge variety of testing conditions to shoot the bird. The meat is also prized by many people as far superior to pheasant. The partridge is often the first bird to be taken from the chiller at the end of the shooting day.