In 1958, when I was a young boy of eight, I lived in the officers’ quarters where my father was stationed at the Central Ammunition Depot, (CAD) at Bramley, in Hampshire where he also ran the shoot. We were conveniently sandwiched between the Duke of Wellington’s Estate at Stratfield Saye and The Vyne, now a National Trust property, and of course we benefitted from the numbers of birds they put down!
However, they only put down pheasants, because there were still at that time plenty of wild English partridges to shoot, although they declined dramatically in subsequent years, mainly as a result of pesticides, and modern farming practices.
I was fascinated by all aspects of the shoot, and spent every spare minute with the two gamekeepers, helping them with all their tasks, and I learned a lot about what goes on behind the scenes on a shoot, including the introduction, by my father, of the first incubators, which enabled us to rear much larger numbers of our own pheasants.
Having shot from an early age, in recent years, I have become increasingly enamoured with the concept of sustainable shooting, encouraged, in particular by the various ‘wild partridge’ projects, which are taking place up and down the country.
I therefore decided to write this article for the many keen shots who share my enthusiasm for the concept of ‘sustainable shooting’, using the success of these Partridge Projects as an example of what can be achieved with the intelligent management of habitat, and constant vermin control, which is what these partridge projects are all about.
To understand the achievement of designing and implementing a successful partridge project, we first need to know more about the species.
Perdix Perdix is better known as the English or Grey Partridge, but was originally a bird of temperate steppe grasslands, although it has adapted readily to open arable landscapes and, accordingly, vastly expanded its range as agricultural development spread westwards across Europe over the last eight millennia. After the last Ice Age, the grey partridge arrived naturally in Britain.
The Golden Era and Record Bags
The ‘Golden Era’ for wild partridge shoots, correctly known as Partridge Manors, was 1870-1930, during which period around two million grey partridges were killed annually. The combination of land enclosure, increased cultivation and intensive predator control in the 18th and especially the 19th century boosted partridge numbers considerably and it became the most popular sporting quarry of the last century.
There are numerous reports of ‘record bags’ from different estates throughout the country, such as the shoot which lasted from October 18th to 21st in 1887, at The Grange Estate, Hampshire, where seven guns shot 4,109 partridge over four days and a decade later, at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, the guns bagged 4,316 in four days.
Lord Carnarvon hosted a record three-day bag at Highclere in November 1895, taking a staggering 10,807 head of game with five other Victorian heavy hitters, including The Prince of Walesand the Duleep Singh brothers. Other achievements included the late Joe Nickerson’s team at Sandringham who shot 2119 partridge in one day in 1952.
These were common before the Second World War in the Home Counties, East Anglia, Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire. Shooting records show that these areas commonly supported bags of more than 20 birds killed per square kilometre.
Preservation of Perdix Perdix by The Euston and French Systems
For centuries the grey partridge has been preserved for sport, both through vermin control and poaching prevention and by the implementation of successive Acts of Parliament passed to protect game birds. A few landowners began to artificially rear grey partridges using broody hens, but this method of rearing did not become general practice until the late Victorian period when H.H. the Maharajah Duleep Singh and other top sportsmen implemented hand rearing in order to obtain large bags of driven partridges. Even then, many leading shots avoided hand rearing in favour of other ways of increasing partridge stocks.
Landowners such as the Earl of Leicester at Holkam Hall instead adopted nest management as the principal form of partridge preservation, offering a ‘nest payment’ of 1/- per nest to farm labourers and others for reporting the locations of nests in fields and hedgerows to a gamekeeper in order that he could keep a watching brief over them during spring and early summer. Remarkably, this method of partridge preservation continued to be operated on some estates until the 1950s, although payments did not increase with inflation, always remaining at 1/- per nest!
However another system was introduced in the late Victorian period by Mr. Pearson Gregory who was a sporting tenant on the Duke of Grafton’s Euston Estate in Suffolk, for increasing and improving the partridge stocks on a shoot – The Euston System.
Under this system, partridge eggs were removed from nests and replaced with artificial eggs, then incubated beneath broody hens until the point of chipping, when they were returned to nests for hatching. The advantages gained by using the Euston System to rear partridges included the minimisation of nest losses through bad weather and vermin destruction and the ability to improve stocks by moving eggs from one nest to another.
Indeed, many gamekeepers operating this method of preservation exchanged eggs with neighbouring estates in order to obtain new blood, or even travelled by express train to London and swapped a consignment of eggs with a keeper from a distant county such as Yorkshire, Hampshire or Devon at a mainline railway station.
The Euston System continued to be used extensively throughout England until the late 1930s.
Occasionally a landowner would use the French System for rearing partridges in preference to the Euston System. This involved catching and penning up male and female birds, then after mating had taken place, putting the female birds into small pens to lay and incubate their own eggs. Several weeks after hatching, the young partridge chicks, along with the adult birds, would then be released into the wild to fend for themselves.
Although expensive to set up and manage, this system of rearing did ensure that birds were sheltered from the weather and safe from vermin.
In addition to artificial rearing or nest management, from the 1850s until the 1930s it was customary on many estates to bolster stocks of grey partridges by putting down live birds imported from Hungary and other Central European countries. These birds could be obtained ‘over the counter’ from dealers in Leadenhall Market in London, purchased on a private basis from advertisers in journals such as The Field or ordered through game farms.
From 1890s until the outbreak of the WWII in 1939, many major landowners employed at least one dedicated partridge keeper to preserve partridges on their property. These men were responsible for looking after partridge beats and were expected to produce enough birds to provide a sizeable bag of partridges on a shoot day.
Occasionally, an estate was managed solely as a partridge shoot. It was then traditionally known as a “Partridge Manor”. For example, Heale House, a 2,724-acre sporting property in the Woodford Valley in Wiltshire, was run along these lines during the Edwardian period, with three partridge beats under the control of a head keeper and two beat keepers.
Each of the beats was usually shot over three times in a season, with bags averaging between 75 to 100 brace of partridges per day. Pheasants were not reared, and any pheasants were shot on sight as vermin!
Not all birds were driven in this golden era. For many Guns, prior to the Second World War, and again afterwards, walking up partridges over stubble was the mainstay of their sport, which is why English game-guns traditionally have less choke in the right barrel, a configuration best suited to dealing with going-away birds.
The Decline and Fall of Perdix Perdix
Following the end of the WWI in 1918, grey partridge stocks began to decline in many areas. The recession of the 1920s and 30s caused a large number of estates to be put down to grass and the birds disappeared where they had once been common. However, they still survived in large numbers where arable farming predominated.
In the wake of WWII, the introduction of new arable farming methods did much to destroy the habitat of the grey partridge. Large scale hedgerow and bank removal, stubble burning, silage cutting in May, artificial fertilisers and chemical weed killer sprays destroyed the insects on which the young chicks live and depend on to obtain the proteins needed for rapid growth and increased predation – all took their toll on partridge survival rates.
So the wild grey partridge has declined massively in modern times from more than a million pairs in the 1950 to just 75,000 in 2000.
The Start of the Return of the Native
Happily, though, over the past decade or so, a number of landowners have made tremendous efforts to increase the stocks of English grey partridges on their land through habitat enhancement, sympathetic farming practices and by annually putting down birds from game farms or implementing bag restrictions and, occasionally, a temporary shooting ban. Indeed, at Sandringham in Norfolk, at Arundel in Sussex and on a number or other estates, imaginative grey partridge restoration projects have led to a return of the birds in significant numbers, producing good daily bags both on walked-up and driven shoots.
That said, the French or red-legged partridge continues to be the principal quarry species on the majority of today’s sporting properties.
The Great Estates leading the way to the return of the Perdix Perdix
East Anglia boasts some of the very best shoots in the country, due to its light soil and relatively dry climate and Norfolk has always boasted some of the best habitat for game birds.
Holkham Hall has long been regarded as a ‘Great Estate’ in the eyes of the shooting world, not least because it is believed to be the place where driven shooting first began but alongside this it also the place where wild partridge have thrived naturally because of the ideal habitat and abundance of insects which breed in the coastal soil.
Following the fine example of Holkham The Dukes of Norfolk and Northumberland have intigated projects to restore English partridge to their respective Estates.
The Duke of Northumberland very kindly arranged for me to meet his head Keeper, Garry Whitfield to discuss his Partridge project at Ratcheugh, where he has been heavily involved in their English Partridge project from the outset. In fact, it was Gary Whitfield’s idea in the first place.
When I met with Garry Whitfield, we sat on a stone bench on a high ridge in Hulne Park, admiring the Duke’s favourite view over the Northumberland Estates, and he told me that it was the Duke’s ambition to be able to shoot 50 brace of wild partridge on his 50th Birthday, and, following the success of their Partridge project, his wish came true at a shoot to celebrate this landmark. It was the ultimate birthday present for a man who loves his sport so much, and a tribute to his support and faith in his Head Keeper.
Following the success of the Northumberland project, The Duke of Norfolk has enjoyed similar success. It is worth looking at the Arundel project from the outset, as they really started from scratch.
The chalk downland of West Sussex was a stronghold for English partridges in the 1950s when they were commonplace but by the spring of 2003, there were only three wild pairs on the Duke of Norfolk’s 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.
It was also essential that the four farms on the estate, North Stoke, Wepham, Peppering and Parham came under the same management for the project to succeed. This took a few years but was achiened in 2007. Next farming practices had to change. This involved replacing modern block farming by a more traditional farming system with smaller fields planted in rotation incorporating winter wheat, winter and spring barley, oilseed rape, peas, stubble turnips and grass leys all this combined with a flock of 1,100 breeding ewes.
In addition, the Norfolk Estate at Arundel 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 kilometres of new hedges have been planted and beetle banks created in the centre of fields.
Alongside the above, predator control was and is their main task. Foxes are controlled all year round, as the fox population is constantly rising, which keeps continuous pressure on all populations of ground nesting birds, not just game birds. Smaller predators such as stoats and weasels are caught in tunnel traps, sited in hedgerows and other places, which the keepers know the animals use when hunting their prey. Rats are also trapped and poisoned, as their numbers are on the increase. Corvids are kept in check through shooting and the use of Larsen traps. The main season for predator control is the early spring when their aim is to reduce predator numbers so that more pheasants and partridges can produce, sit on and eventually hatch their young in relative safety.
Creating ideal habitat
However, for these birds to be successful and to maintain a good stock, the habitat also has to be right, and they try to provide adequate nesting cover near a source of insects. Most partridges nest in the base of hedges where there is ample cover. Making sure that insects are available at the right time for the chicks to feed on is vitally important, so they plant autumn brood rearing crops, such as cereal and lucerne.
These are not sprayed or fertilised, which is more natural for the insects and their larvae. They also drill larger areas of wild bird mix, which help to hold and feed birds throughout the winter months. As an additional benefit, these mixes also feed a myriad of songbirds and small mammals
Awards and Praise
The recognition and reward for these Partridge Projects is reflected in the awards presented by Purdeys, in 2007 to the Duke of Northumberland and then in 2010 to the Duke of Norfolk. The project at Arundel was described as an ‘ambitious and innovative wild game conservation project over six years’, led and masterminded by the Duke of Norfolk to successfully re-establish substantial wild grey ‘English’ partridge populations on two Arundel Estate farms in the South Downs National Park.
Richard Purdey,and Andrew Stringer
Richard Purdey, who has organised the Awards since 1999, said:
‘We are delighted to be presenting this year’s Purdey Gold Award to the Duke of Norfolk and his team. It is thoroughly well deserved recognition for their dedication and determination to restore wild grey partridge on the South Downs. Sixty years ago these game birds were commonplace over this stretch of countryside, but 5 years ago there were none.
Now, thanks to the Duke, the grey partridge are back in West Sussex, and on a growing island of partridge manors, just as it used to be.
The Peppering Shoot is a shining example of how shooting and conservation march hand in hand.
It will doubtless surprise many people that it is not just grey partridge which have benefited from this work, but many other songbird and wildlife species as well, all contributing to a major improvement in the overall biodiversity of this area. However, without the partridge shooting, this conservation work would never have happened.’
Biodiversity benefits – A win win situation for us all
The grey partridge as the gamebird equivalent of the proverbial canary in the coalmine. The wild population of greys is as good an indicator as any of the harmony between arable farming and our native wildlife.
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 them 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.
South Downs Sanctuary
The Duke’s aim with the project at Arundel, 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.
Given the nature of the South Downs, I can think of several large estates which, if they chose to emulate the success on the Duke of Norfolk’s Estate at Arundel, could easily create a ‘corridor’ of partridge friendly land from Winchester in the west to Eastbourne in the east, and it would not take too many landowners to achieve this objective.
A Partridge Corridor
For example, on the stretch of the South Downs which I know best, from Worthing to Winchester, the following Estates would be key to such a plan, and I believe all the owners, most of whom I believe, would be sympathetic:
Angmering – Nigel Clutton; Arundel, – Duke of Norfolk; Dale Park (Dale Park forms one of a series of large estates between Chichester and Arundel amongst which are Halnaker, Goodwood, Eartham, and Slindon); Goodwood – Lord March; Cowdray – Lord Cowdray; Uppark, National Trust; Chidden Farm – Philip White; Bereleigh – Bill Tyrwhitt-Drake; Rotherfield – Sir James Scott, Bart; Warnford – Malcolm Isaac; Preshaw – Sir Richard Pelly, Bart; Longwood (Tenant Philip Mason); Bramdean – Mathew Morton; Hinton Ampner – National Trust/ Tenant: Charlie Flindt; Beauworth – the Corbetts; Longwood – Peter Mason/Michael Packenham; Matterley – Peverill Bruce.
For all I know, some of these landowners may already be involved in similar projects. I do know that James Scott is at Rotherfield, but all these owners know each other to a greater or lesser degree, and all have shoots, so it should not be ‘Rocket Science’ to gather them all together, and agree certain principles which will ultimately benefit them all.
So I am sure they could be persuaded to make over part of their land for this purpose, and the above list of estates would form an almost unbroken corridor along the South Downs from Worthing to Winchester.
Furthermore, it is an opportune moment to do this, because as 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’
It is also worth noting that it is Sportsmen who have lead the efforts to restore the bird’s fortunes.
The Proof of the Pudding – A Special Day’s shooting at Arundel
The final endorsement came with the first serious shoot which took place in October, 2010.
My interest in this subject was heightened by a wonderful account by Mike Barnes, in The Shooting Gazette, of a day at Arundel following the success of their project, and I reproduce a small part of it to give a flavour of an extraordinary day’s shooting featuring some of the best shots in the country.
Mike Barnes described it thus:
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 a ‘Percy Sandwich’ which means 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, and The Duke of Norfolk.
To miss-quote a ‘catch-phrase’ from a well-known TV programme: ‘Shooting goes not get better than this!’
These two experiments on the estates of the Dukes of Norfolk and Northumberland have, I believe, signalled a welcome development in the shooting world, where, instead of shooting huge numbers of birds bred solely for the purpose, they might shoot half the number, but derive far greater pleasure knowing that this is a sustainable shoot which brings with it, so many other benefits.
Perhaps the City Slickers who regularly take days with bags of upward of 300 birds, might prefer to have the kudos of inviting their guests to shoot wild birds on a sustainable shoot
They would, I am sure be amazed at the concept that ‘less can be more’, and this is not a banker’s traditional philosophy, so they might take some weaning off the ‘instant gratification’ shooting which they have become used to.
Taking a day on a sustainable shoot might become the ‘in thing’, and the privilege of shooting English ‘greys’ in a sustainable way certainly has great appeal, so I hope this signals a paradigm shift in attitudes towards game shooting .
With special thanks to the following:- His Grace, The Duke of Northumberland; Garry Whitfield, Head Keeper of the Northumberland Estates; Andrew Farquarson – Controller of the Household at Alnwick; Graham Edmunds, Photographer; Shooting Times; Mike Barns, Shooting Gazette
Whilst writing this article, I asked a friend, Christopher Ussher who is the Agent, and a Trustee of the Harewood Estate if they had any plans for such a project at Harewood, and he very kindly sent me the following explanation of their Partridge project:
‘Harewood has never been a bastion of the Grey Partridge but in times gone by there were certainly many more birds on the estate than there are today.
When our new Head Keeper, Tim Rothwell, late of Holkham in Norfolk arrived in 2010, we decided to invest some time and effort into trying to help the population recover, using his skills from managing wild greys in Norfolk.
This was tackled in two ways. First we created a much more wildlife friendly mosaic of habitat on our thousand acres of arable land and where appropriate on our tenanted land, with the cooperation of our tenant farmers.
Once we had managed to establish some game feed crops, beetle banks, new hedgerows and field margins, we began to carefully reintroduce small coveys of bantam reared partridge chicks, into these areas. All of this was accompanied by a rigorous vermin control policy.
The re-introduction of bantam reared greys was very successful, if there were any barren pairs of greys on the land. We found that barren pairs of greys were very quick to adopt these young coveys and this worked very well.
When Tim started, we probably had two coveys on the estate as well as the odd wild pair. We now have six coveys and are hoping to build up one or two more.
In essence this is a small scale project and its aim is the re-establish the greys at an acceptable level across the available habitat. It is not designed to create extra shooting but just to add to the variety of game and wildlife we have at Harewood’
Robert Jarman has spent a lifetime observing and commenting on the habits and habitats of that endangered species, the British Aristocracy, including their houses, art collections, sports and pastimes.
He was a part-owner and Managing Director of Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage, which he acquired and rescued from near extinction in 1976, and built into an international publishing company.
He published the catalogues for a number of major Exhibitions at the V&A and the Royal Academy in the UK, the Cooper Hewitt and MOMA in New York, and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.
He also conceived and created an important contemporary reference book called, ‘People of Today’, first published in 1981 which is the ultimate study of the UK’s most successful and influential people.
He is therefore well-qualified to publish and edit The Vintage Magazine, an on-line publication aimed at, but not limited to, the affluent and active, over 50s who number over 23 million in the UK, and control 80% of the wealth of the country.