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A September challenge for the picker-up

Driven red-legged partridges can offer great September sport for the Gun but they present a particular challenge to the picker-up, says David Tomlinson


Crash-landing red-legged partridges can fool even the experience picker-up into sending his dog to retrieve

It’s an indication of my age that the first partridge I shot was a wild grey, walked up in barley stubble on the North Downs. Today, the M20 motorway cuts through the site where I shot my bird, and I’ve no idea whether any wild grey partridges can still be found in the area, close to Brands Hatch racing circuit. I didn’t have a dog at the time, and I remember running-in like an untrained spaniel to retrieve my bird successfully.

Unsporting birds

It was nearly a decade later that I was invited on my first proper partridge day on a friend’s shoot in Essex. At the time the release of red-legged partridges for shooting was still something of a novelty, and it was the  first season that this shoot had released any. The anticipation was great as we lined up for the  first drive on a warm September morning. Alas, the birds didn’t appreciate what they were supposed to do, and most marched steadfastly through the line, showing as much inclination to fly as a bunch of penguins.


red legged partridge

Redlegs are plucky little birds that can offer great sport, but they are not as tough as pheasants

Of course, redlegs have long had a reputation for being distinctly unsporting birds. The celebrated artist George E. Lodge discussed this in his book Memoirs of an Artist Naturalist (a good read if you can get hold of a copy), noting the unpopularity of the redleg among shooting men because of their tendency to run, “causing dogs to be liable to break their point and draw in too much”. He was referring to shooting partridges over pointers and setters, not driven birds.

Lodge illustrated David Bannerman’s epic 12-volume work The Birds of the British Isles and, like Lodge, Bannerman was a shooting man. He wrote: “When driven, the redleg affords excellent sport,  flying straight and fast and not jinking when suddenly confronted by a line of Guns.” The secret of success is getting the birds airborne in the first place, something that most gamekeepers have perfected.

I have watched setters and pointers and HPRs attempt to point red legs during both spring pointing tests and spring and autumn field trials. Sadly, I’m forced to agree with Lodge that they are an unsatisfactory quarry for a pointing dog, being far too keen on running. In contrast, grey partridges are much less likely to run. The reason for this difference in behaviour lies in the birds’ origins. Redlegs come originally from southern Europe, where cover is invariably sparse, so running rather than hiding from danger makes sound survival sense.

Exhausted or injured?

Though the partridge season may have started three weeks ago, many shoots will be holding their  first shoot days in the next week or so. Early-season redlegs offer a considerable challenge for pickers-up and their dogs, as it is often so difficult to tell the difference between a bird that has been wounded and one that is exhausted. Most redlegs get little flying practice before the first shooting day, so their flight muscles are poorly developed, and the exertion of flying even a short distance takes a lot out of them.

red legged partridge and spaniel

Redlegs will soon run out of puff, making pricked birds easy to retrieve

If you are picking-up and standing well back behind the Guns, you are sure to have many birds land around you. Many will even crash-land, rolling over as they hit the ground and giving every impression of having been shot. The fact that they have flown so far before crashing suggests that they have been untouched by the guns, but these are birds that inexperienced — and even some experienced — pickers-up will send their dogs for. They are usually easy retrieves, too, as the partridges simply haven’t the puff to run far, let alone fly again.

Not a pellet in them

I have heard of disputes on commercial shoots where the team of Guns has been presented with a bill for bagging considerably more birds than they believe they have shot. The birds may be hanging on the gamecart, but there’s a strong likelihood that a sizeable proportion have not a pellet in them.

Another difference between the native grey and the imported redleg is their ability to withstand not just the weather, but also the conditions they live in. Just over 100 years ago William Robert Ogilvie-Grant contributed to a wonderful four-set series of books entitled The Gun at Home and Abroad. Only 500 copies were produced, and today a good set commands several thousand pounds. In Volume I, British Game Birds and Wildfowl, Ogilvie-Grant draws attention to the fact that red legs suffer on clay soils, “for as they seek to take refuge by running, their feet soon become clogged, making it dfficult for them to continue”. He also notes that, on a wet day, their plumage becomes soaked much sooner than that of a grey partridge.

So if you are picking-up redlegs, particularly on a wet day on heavy ground, these are extra factors to take into account. I have great respect for these partridges, and regard them as plucky little birds that can offer great sport, but we should never forget that they are nowhere near as tough as pheasants. Though their season may open on 1 September, birds shot this month will seldom be anything like as challenging to the Guns as those that come over later in the season. However, for the picker-up, September partridges are an extremely tricky challenge.