With Tarquin Millington-Drake
There are many people vastly more qualified than me to be writing this piece.
But as the lucky beneficiary of some amazing work that has been done over decades, commencing in the 1970s, I’m thrilled to be given the chance to talk about matters so close to my heart.
All photographs within this piece are also by Tarquin Millington-Drake
I am an amateur photographer, and over the years spent trying to photograph the likes of grey partridge, yellowhammer, and other farmland species have witnessed the dramatic difference between land farmed ‘normally’ and ground farmed with best habitat in mind. Believe me, the difference is immense. Grey partridges are very hard to photograph, even when present in good numbers, and getting close enough for a good image is as exciting as catching a salmon, decoying a pigeon, or stalking a roe. This long quest has added to my understanding of the extent to which farmland songbirds and other wildlife benefit from grey partridge stewardship. There are three essential management components to this story: provision of food, cover and predation control. Without these, and kind weather which is critical, few birds survive well.
The story begins in the aftermath of World War II. Then, grey partridges thrived, but the need for food rationing was the beginning of a more intense focus on productivity in farming. This led to hedgerows being ripped out and, where it was not possible to do that, fields being ploughed right up to their edges, leaving no natural cover or the weeds which provide a vital food source. A pattern developed in which anything which might improve crop yield was seen as a virtue. When in 1962, in her book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson warned the world about using chemicals to control pests, her warnings fell on deaf ears; productivity was paramount. The UK joining of the Common Market then changed the subsidy basis from deficiency payments to a further focus on productivity, which in turn heralded an even greater use of herbicides and insecticides. Weeds that had been key habitat for insects were attacked, as were the insects themselves, and the passage of harmful chemicals up the food chain caused the thinning of eggs shells, resulting in sitting partridges breaking their own eggs. The importance of protein-rich insects in the first three weeks of a partridge chick’s life cannot be over-emphasised; GWCT research shows us that insect-rich habitats are critical for partridge brood survival. As Hampshire farmer Hugh Oliver-Bellasis, one of the great contributors to finding the answers and solutions, put it starkly.
“So here we have an emerging dilemma: a bird needing insects for its chicks in the summer, and farmers removing the plants (knotgrass and black bindweed) on which those insects rely.”
At the beginning of the 1980s Oliver-Bellasis, along with Dr Dick Potts from the then Game Conservancy Trust (now the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust), set about proving Potts’ theory that the principal reasons for grey partridge decline were indeed lack of chick food (insects) and cover. Funded by over 500 farmers and landowners via the Game Conservancy, the Cereals and Gamebirds Research Project began in 1983, and concluded with the birth of conservation headlands in 1989. The challenge was now to convince the farming community to utilise them for genuine good, and this is where the difference between farms that really make the effort, and those that merely take advantage of the subsidies, became apparent.
Basically, in the broadest possible terms, if a farming practice provides the food and cover that benefits the grey partridge it will also support a host of other species – yellowhammer, skylark, linnet, lapwing, corn bunting, reed bunting, butterflies, hares, wood mice, the list continues. In effect, the grey partridge is an indicator or ‘umbrella species’: if the partridge are flourishing, so too will the others.
The key factors can be broken down into three main areas.
Farming practices relevant to crops
This relates to the insecticides and herbicides, and the use of field margins, as previously outlined. A farm focusing on its bird life will not merely claim agri-environment subsidies on ‘dead’ areas – wet ground, difficult arable corners etc – but will concentrate on providing key habitats that present secure nesting, brood rearing and winter holding cover, along with a plentiful supply of food (seed and grain) in the winter months. Nesting cover, made up of tussock-forming grasses such as cock’s-foot and timothy, is provided either by mid-field beetle banks or perimeter grass margins, often enhanced with wildflowers. Summer brood rearing cover and winter food can be jointly provided by specialist conservation crops, often referred to as wild bird seed mixes. These carefully formulated mixes are also designed to provide a wonderful winter larder for songbirds, which descend on them in massive flocks during the hungry months. Examples are bushman’s blend millet (a branded blend), sorghum, linseed, triticale and wheat or bittern kale, kale, gold of pleasure, interval, utopia, radical radish (another branded blend), brown mustard, phacelia and linseed. Locally they mix all this with copious amounts of chicory which seems very effective.
Farming practices relevant to machinery
There are so many practices that require only a small adjustment to make a huge difference. Modifying topping, silage harvesting, and haymaking practices are all important to ensure the safety of birds and other wildlife, for example working from the centre of the field outwards. While a covey (brood) of chicks will disperse to escape a predator, once on their own they do not move a second time; therefore, once scattered by machinery, the risk of eventually being mown down is great. Mowing from the outside in thus merely delays the inevitable. At night grey partridges go out into the middle of fields to roost, where no predator can creep up on them under the cover of a hedge. If there is an attack, their defence is to spray like a firework leaving the predator confused as to which direction to go. Where greys are present avoiding night field work matters, as does avoiding crops such as potatoes and carrot where farming conflicts with bird preservation.
‘Block cropping’ with a single crop variety creates a less biodiverse landscape, whereas a patchwork of different crops creates a environment that helps cater for the needs of partridges and other wildlife throughout the whole year. Managing hedges is equally important, as allowing the base to broaden up to 4 metres, and the hedge to reach a good height, greatly improves cover and safety. The ideal is an A shape, making it hard for predators to see into the hedge. How crops are planned and rotated and/or ploughed also makes a great difference.
A difficult subject, but the hard fact is that all the above is bordering on worthless if foxes, rats, corvids, stoats and weasels are not controlled. The single-minded focus on pursuit of productivity led, over decades, to populations of farmland birds, including grey partridges, reduced to so low a level that without predator control they have little chance of recovering their numbers. The proof of that is very easy to see – drive around a managed farm that controls predation and count what you see. Then, visit a farm without conservation measures and predator control in place and keep counting; the reduction in numbers is immediately evident. This is not about extermination, it’s about restoring the balance that we destroyed. As can be seen by the healthy populations of raptors on well-managed land, thriving due to the improved status of their various prey species.
The farm near me is testament to enlightened management; 1500 acres bursting with life, resulting from a huge amount of effort, planning and investment by just a few devoted people. George Ponsonby has led the charge and there surely cannot be anyone more enthusiastic about grey partridge and British wildlife. He is ably supported by the keeper, the great Frank Snudden, who is the epitome of the real deal when it comes to stewardship of grey partridges. Their devotion alone makes a massive difference to the success of what they are trying to achieve. In five short years they have taken their small, reared pheasant shoot out of releasing (no birds put down and no pens) when there were 17 wild pairs of greys. This spring the count was 122 pairs, plus an amazing number of wild pheasants and red-legged partridges. This little jewel is now home to one of the largest populations of linnet and yellowhammer in the country, with an extravagant array of butterflies and other insects.
Once rare, these oases are steadily increasing in number. My hope is that they will become yet more widespread, and that the shooting fraternity may begin to embrace a return to wilder shooting. When was your last day of rough shooting? In my time sitting in my photography hide I have observed moments that I would otherwise have never witnessed. A male grey partridge attacking a wood pigeon for being close to his mate. A leveret chasing a red-leg partridge in attempt to get it to play with I – this happened several times one evening. Watching birds dust bathing close up is always a pleasure. I have also become convinced that in the autumn there is a partnership between hares and grey partridge coveys, having observed hares sitting right amongst a covey too often for there not to be a reason for it. My guess is the hares find all those keen eyes of the partridge useful, and the partridges utilise the keen ears of the hares. In contrast, this spring I have witnessed the male greys attack the hares for coming too close to their partner. One can only observe how often birds, and even hares, do what I call a predator check when they look up to the sky for the all clear.
Through our need to feed our ever-growing population we have often destroyed habitat and nature’s food supply. The reason why farmland and songbirds benefit from grey partridge habitat and pro-active management is because those basic requirements of food and cover are being restored, along with the necessary protection offered by targeted, humane predator control. As is so often the case with things in the natural world, the solutions are simple, but the objections are real. Like all of us, farmers are set in their ways, and furthermore improvement of habitat comes at a cost. Government can help with enhanced financial rewards for ecological improvement, but to be effective farmers themselves need to recognise the benefit of a healthy ecosystem, and sign up not just to the letter but to the spirit of the endeavour.
The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust has had an integral role since the beginning, and it is to them I point you for further information. It is they that co-ordinate the Partridge Count Scheme where participating estates count and reports their partridges in the spring and early autumn.
Follow more of Tarquin’s work and travels here https://blog.millingtondrake.com/