Partridges - Wild & Wonderful

Norfolk estate, West Sussex

How the spectacular restoration of wild grey partridges won the 2010 Purdey gold award for the Norfolk estate, West Sussex. By Mike Barnes.

It was a bright, clear October morning. A brisk north-easterly wind brushed past the Guns lined out on Sussex chalkland. In front of them was a tall hedgerow. There was anticipation, expectation, uncertainty. What would the big blue sky yield? A whistle blew, they were coming - where? Suddenly there! A covey of nearly 20 English partridges burst over the hedgerow, sliding at 45 degrees across the Guns, weaving, swirling and rocketing past - four shots were fired, two birds fell. The day had begun.

The covey headed over the Arun valley stretching out behind us.  Arundel Castle looked on approvingly from a distance. Other coveys of all sizes broke all along the line and 24 greys found their way into the bag, along with a couple of redlegs and a pheasant. But more than anything the drive was a vivid reminder of just how exciting and different wild Englishmen are to all other sport. We were all pretty stunned at what we had seen and experienced. As an observer I found it thrilling - I can only imagine how it was for the Guns. But perhaps more than anything it must surely have given a very warm glow to the Duke of Norfolk who had invested so much time and effort, and no little amount of finance, to restore this iconic bird on 2,600 acres of West Sussex.

It is an extraordinary story, which will hopefully provide much inspiration for others. The day itself saw a bag of 1451/2 brace of greys and 1521/2 brace of wild redlegs, the biggest bag of wild partridge anywhere for a very long time, certainly since the 70s. Plus wild pheasants.

Even allowing for the fact that this was a strong line of Guns, the conditions while visually perfect, made for some challenging shooting. In real terms the stock had barely been touched - autumn counts showed 2,150 Englishmen in residence. And the day's shooting took in less than 1,500 acres. Even more remarkable to consider that in 2003 the estate was down to three pairs. Moreover it has become a flagship for many other species. So how have they done it?

The Duke of Norfolk explained: “It all began when Dick Potts, having made his annual count in 2002, told me that unless something was done then the grey partridge would be extinct in the Sussex study area by 2005. This was, of course, unthinkable.” Dr. Dick Potts is the former director general for the Game Conservancy (now GWCT) and has undertaken partridge counts in the Sussex study area since the 60s, part of which is the Norfolk estate.

To rewind the story further, the Duke of Norfolk's passion for wild game goes back to boyhood. “I started shooting at the age of 12, up at Carlton Towers, near Selby, Yorkshire, which was my grandmother's home (father's mother) and we used to go for the first week in September walking-up wild grey partridges. It was there that I discovered a keen interest in the bird and after my grandmother died I started running the shoot myself. I was 16. My father was never interested in shooting and delegated it to me. I also discovered at that time that rearing and releasing greys just doesn't work. It has to be wild.

“I only got involved down here at Arundel when cousin Bernard Norfolk died, and when I left university I remember seeing the odd covey of greys but nothing more than that. All of the area over which we now shoot the greys was tenanted with the shooting rights in the farm tenancies and so I didn't frequent it very much as our shoot was on the other side of the river in Arundel Park.”

Moving forward to 2003... as mentioned, just three wild pairs of partridges were counted on the Norfolk estate and a part-time keeper was taken on to control predation on the farm at North Stoke where the tenant was bought out. One year on a hen had been killed by a walker's dog and just two pairs remained. So the decision was made to translocate nine genuinely wild pairs from Norfolk, captured and moved in the dead of night, from which point no other greys have been introduced and no fostering or releasing has taken place. “Only with true wild birds will you get those really big broods,” he explains, “they are superior in every way. Even in the park where we rear all of our own pheasants, we use wild strains from Norfolk and Arkengarthdale in Yorkshire.” 

Simultaneously, having taken the decision to buy back the tenancies on the estate to farm in hand, the farming was undergoing a dramatic change. Having initially entered into an ESA agreement, in 2007 the estate went into a ten year Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) which with 18 options is aimed at restoring biodiversity in general and in this instance, wild grey partridges in particular.

The outcome is a patchwork of fields (of much smaller sizes) and rotational cropping incorporating winter wheat, winter and spring barley, oilseed rape, peas, stubble turnips, fodder beet, some hemp and grass leys. And sheep, for these too play their part, as estate manager Peter Knight explained: “The Downs are sheep country. They are an integral part of HLS. Firstly by undersowing spring barley with grass/clover mix, when the crop is taken you get two years of grass leys. Stubble turnips are sown after winter barley. Both are excellent for cover and insects for the birds.”

Around most fields are 10 metre conservation headlands to provide broad leaf weeds and insect abundance (crucial for chick survival) and six metre wild bird mixes giving protection from predators and providing a food source, particularly during spring when pairing up. Also there is 15k of new hedging - that's 100,000 plants - which provides cover and wildlife corridors. 

The results are extraordinary. Not least with grey partridges(more of which in due course). The abundance of arable flora here is now of national importance, with a number of species having been restored in conservation headlands. Many species of insect too, notably those which are vital to farmland birds.

Some 104 species of bird are seen annually on the estate (excluding those spotted flying over) including 23 out of the UK's 52 red-listed species. Skylarks are up to 400 pairs, corn buntings up to 61 pairs and lapwings up from one or two pairs to 35 pairs producing two or three young each (seven nests were taken by herring gulls this year).

The whole project has stimulated great interest locally. A farm tour in the spring attracted 154 people (against expectations of 20-30). There are 25 miles of public footpaths in and around the estate, so does this not cause a problem? “Not at all,” said the Duke. “We welcome the local interest. It is important that we embrace everyone.” From the Sussex Ornithological Society to DEFRA to Natural England and anyone with an interest in wildlife and the countryside - all are welcomed.

“But what I cannot stress enough,” he adds, “is that it has been a huge team effort working in close partnership with Natural England who have given us tremendous support. There has been great attention to detail, the keepers and the farm staff have been brilliant, and everyone has pulled together in the same direction to make this happen.”

But the partridge are undoubtedly the big story. Without that interest none of this would have happened. The estate would be under the grip of block farming. In fact the stock levels had risen so well in 2009 that the first shoot was held last October when there was considered to be a shootable surplus of 100 greys - 56 brace were shot.

But here is the really interesting bit. Most of the habitat work comes as part of the HLS scheme, which helps to compensate for the profit foregone. The Duke of Norfolk hopes that his experience will encourage others. “My aim with the project is to try and see if the wild lowland shoot is viable again now that HLS is available to many landowners. HLS roughly compensates you for the loss of farming profit which leaves the keepering costs to be met by the sale of ‘wild day' shooting and the enjoyment in hand. We therefore need to average about 400-500 brace of wild partridges and a few wild pheasants to compensate us for the keepering cost here on an annual basis. And that is what we are striving to do.

“The reared bird shoot, either large or small, will remain the mainstay of the game shooting community in the UK for many years to come, and so it should do, but there is a growing need for more truly wild shoots to re-establish themselves, particularly in lowland Britain. Not least is the importance of re-inforcing the links between shooting and conservation.”

How great it would be to have shooting properly credited for meeting bio-diversity targets. Even better, to see a widespread rebirth of partridge manors great and small.

The gamekeeper

The head gamekeeper is 26-year-old Charlie Mellor, who started his keepering career at Hurstbourne Park, Hampshire on a ‘semi-wild' pheasant shoot, before moving to Butley, Suffolk, and then joining the Norfolk Estate as underkeeper to Tom Goodridge.

He left for a year's sabbatical in Australia to return in March to take on the role as headkeeper, Tom having moved back to Sandringham. The Duke of Norfolk is full of praise. “The keepering team have worked very long hours, but Charlie has done an outstanding job and seems to have taken to the concept of a wild shoot like a duck to water.” He laughs: “But he does know that introducing a reared or fostered bird is a sackable offence!” 

“Absolutely true,” Charlie smiles.

But he also knows that running a successful wild bird shoot is a three-legged stool - food, habitat and legal predator control. All three elements are vital. The Norfolk Estate has a strict policy of always operating within the law with regard to predator control and following best practice as set out by DEFRA. 

But how about the big day - was he nervous? “Funnily enough, I wasn't. If you had asked me that question two days earlier then there would perhaps have been a different response. But we felt we had done everything we could to make it work - it was like a military operation, with six men on each flank (mostly keepers) a line of 24 beaters plus two of us gamekeepers, and an advance team of eight who were a drive ahead blanking in. 

“We all had maps and it all seemed to 
come together. I honestly enjoyed every minute of it. All of the others felt the same. A really special day.”

The shooting

An astonishing day which saw a total bag of 291 grey partridges, 305 redlegs, 42 pheasants, 3 woodpigeon, 1 rook. Total 642 head - all wild (both redleg and pheasants have responded in a big way to the new regime).

There were ten drives (six and four) and each in some way was an experiment, as last year's shoot was the only experience they had to draw on.

A brisk, occasionally gusting, north-east wind didn't affect the birds, some going with it, others clearly strong enough to cut across it. The standard of the shooting was exceptional. There have been mentions in the past of the Percy Sandwich ie to be pegged between brothers Duke of Northumberland and Lord James Percy. It would be an intimidating experience. They were a joy to watch, near clinical efficiency. Modest too. But there were other good performances all along the line, notably of father and son, the host and 23-year-old Henry at neighbouring pegs on the fifth drive where they were positioned in a valley bottom and shot some spectacular birds. Grey coveys and high redlegs like confetti on the wind. Tommy (18), the second son, also shot notably well. Indeed the mix of flashing coveys of greys and high single redlegs made for great sport. Jake Eastham's excellent photography captures the scene beautifully, but the speed, weaving line of the birds, their sheer unpredictability and adrenalin fuelled shooting is beyond all cameras.

The penultimate drive of the day was a stunner - 29 brace of greys, 25 brace of redlegs - the Percys both comfortably topped 25 birds apiece. Interestingly, though the day saw marginally more redlegs shot, at least 75 per cent of the birds that went over the Guns were greys.

One final thought - when was a bag of this sort last shot? Certainly not in the last 40 years.

The Guns were: The Duke of Northumberland, Lord James Percy, Sir James Chichester, Bill Gascoigne, Guy Rasch, Henry Arundel, Tommy Fitzalan Howard, The Duke of Norfolk.

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