Sav­ing the grey par­tridge

In Eng­land the Game & Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Trust re­versed the de­cline of the grey par­tridge by work­ing with landown­ers to recre­ate habi­tat. With some adap­ta­tion, could the model al­low our broad­acre farms to be­come high-value hunt­ing des­ti­na­tions?

Field and Game - - Saving the grey partridge -

One es­tate in an area of Sus­sex, Eng­land, has re­in­stated a sus­tain­able wild grey par­tridge shoot by improving habi­tat pro­vi­sion and in­sti­gat­ing preda­tor con­trol.

On this es­tate, grey par­tridge breed­ing den­sity in­creased from 0.3 pairs per 100 ha in 2003 to nearly 20 pairs per 100 ha in 2010, mak­ing sus­tain­able shoot­ing pos­si­ble, with the funds gen­er­ated help­ing to off­set the costs of man­age­ment.

The de­cline of the grey par­tridge be­gan after World War II and their num­bers plum­meted by 80 per cent in 40 years. The Sus­sex Study tracked the de­cline from 1968 with the Game & Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Trust (GWCT) do­ing ex­ten­sive re­search into both the causes of grey par­tridge de­clines and the meth­ods it em­ployed to re­verse th­ese de­clines.

Dr Ni­cholas Ae­bis­cher is deputy di­rec­tor of re­search at GWCT and he de­tailed the case study at the Con­ser­va­tion through Sus­tain­able Use of Wildlife con­fer­ence in Bris­bane last Septem­ber. “Through the Sus­sex Study my col­league Dick Potts demon­strated that the pri­mary cause was agri­cul­tural in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion and this worked in sev­eral dif­fer­ent ways,” he said. “In­creased mech­a­ni­sa­tion led to the en­large­ment of fields and the re­moval of field bound­aries, which de­stroyed nest­ing habi­tat re­sult­ing in poor hold­ing ca­pac­ity for the grey par­tridge. “Then the use of pes­ti­cides on crops re­duced the num­ber of chick feed in­sects in those crops, which led to poor chick sur­vival. Fi­nally, in­creases in preda­tors and shrink­ing habi­tat meant greater preda­tor pressure, lead­ing to adult and nest losses.”

Dr Ae­bis­cher said of the three, the chick sur­vival rate was the most im­por­tant. A sur­vival rate at or be­low 34 per cent meant over­all num­bers were de­clin­ing.

The first so­lu­tion de­vised was the con­ser­va­tion head­land, a rel­a­tively thin mar­gin on the edge of ce­real crops where chicks most com­monly feed. While farm­ers in the study area still sewed crop in the mar­gin, the use of pes­ti­cides was re­stricted to those tar­get­ing spe­cific weeds the farm­ers wouldn’t tolerate.

Lesser weeds and wild flow­ers were able to re­main, at­tract­ing in­sects and there­fore pro­vid­ing feed for chicks in the cru­cial first few weeks after hatch­ing.

For eight years the re­search con­tin­ued across 20 farms on the Sus­sex Downs. Half was farmed con­ven­tion­ally and oth­ers in­tro­duced con­ser­va­tion head­lands. “It left in the un­der­story the weeds that sup­port in­sects and will pro­vide food for chicks,” Dr Ae­bis­cher said.

“In five out of the eight years the sur­vival rate ex­ceeded the magic fig­ure of 34 per cent while on the other half the sur­vival rate never reached that min­i­mum level.”

The next step was to ad­dress the rest of the grey par­tridge life cy­cle and de­velop a sys­tem that would pro­vide cover for pro­tec­tion of adults and nests, and plen­ti­ful food.

Bee­tle banks worked, pro­vid­ing refuge, es­cape cover and food but the main

draw­back was that the fin­gers of habi­tat re­duced the land avail­able for agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion.

The UK model was able to tap into Euro­pean Union schemes, which com­pen­sated farm­ers for pro­duc­tion fore­gone in or­der to im­ple­ment en­vi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship.

The fi­nal key to sav­ing the grey par­tridge was preda­tor con­trol. “We aren’t sen­ti­men­tal at GWCT; the only so­lu­tion is tar­geted culling of preda­tors, but we do be­lieve in sci­ence,” Dr Ae­bis­cher said.

A seven-year cross­over study of spring pairs proved that the rate of de­cline slowed sig­nif­i­cantly through tar­geted culling.

In com­bi­na­tion, preda­tor con­trol and habi­tat in­creased the num­ber of spring pairs across the man­aged area from three in 2003 to 202 in 2010.

The Duke of Nor­folk be­came heav­ily in­vested in the scheme, ap­ply­ing the prin­ci­ples to ar­eas of his es­tate that were for­merly farmed un­der lease.

In 2010 the Pep­per­ing Shoot in West Sus­sex won a Purdey Award for Game and Con­ser­va­tion.

In just seven years, spring par­tridge pair counts rose from three to 262, al­low­ing a bag of 56 wild greys to be made in Oc­to­ber 2010. Even with the rein­tro­duc­tion of reg­u­lar shoots, the num­ber of breed­ing pairs has since climbed to 350. “He can now shoot birds, which was his pri­mary mo­ti­va­tion for do­ing the works,” Dr Ae­bis­cher said.

“It not only brings great plea­sure and a source of food for his fam­ily and friends, it pro­vides rev­enue that al­lows him to pay for the keeper­ing.”

It also an­swers in the pos­i­tive the ques­tion as to whether hunt­ing and species con­ser­va­tion are com­pat­i­ble.

A broader set of num­bers re­turned on 3300 sites that are part of the UK’S Par­tridge Care Scheme also backs sus­tain­able har­vest as a key part of the value chain that un­der­pins con­ser­va­tion and habi­tat man­age­ment. “Where shoot­ing doesn’t oc­cur there was an 18 per cent de­cline, bet­ter than the na­tional av­er­age but still a de­cline,” Dr Ae­bis­cher said. “In ar­eas where you have that shoot­ing in­ter­est, the in­crease is 91 per cent, so the grey par­tridge pop­u­la­tion has nearly dou­bled since 2000.”

In prac­tice, the same land­scape and preda­tor man­age­ment meth­ods could be em­ployed to build sus­tain­able pop­u­la­tions of quail in Aus­tralia but the stick­ing point would be com­pen­sa­tion to off­set lost pro­duc­tion un­til sus­tain­able pop­u­la­tions could gen­er­ate rev­enue from pas­sion­ate hunters. “Quail in Aus­tralia would be much closer to the sit­u­a­tion for grey par­tridge; you could hunt them sus­tain­ably where they are man­aged,” Dr Ae­bis­cher said. “It would need reg­u­la­tory change but there re­ally are cases where shoot­ing and con­ser­va­tion can go hand in hand.”

“Then the use of pes­ti­cides on crops re­duced the num­ber of chick feed in­sects in those crops, which led to poor chick sur­vival. Fi­nally, in­creases in preda­tors and shrink­ing habi­tat meant greater preda­tor pressure, lead­ing to adult and nest losses.”

Dr Ni­cholas Ae­bis­cher

Wild flow­ers grow­ing in the mar­gin of this field at­tract in­sects which young chicks feed on.

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