Despite millions of Red-legged Partridges released into the countryside every year, their breeding numbers have declined
Kate Risely throws the spotlight on Red-legged Partridges
NATIVE TO FRANCE and Spain, Red-legged Partridges were first introduced to Suffolk in 1770 as game birds, and following years of releases they are now common in low-lying farmland across the country. When approached, they prefer to run, and will burst from cover into fast flight at the last minute. Red-legs have white heads featuring a black stripe through the eye, while the now less common native Grey Partridges have orange faces. In the two years I have lived in my village, in the prime partridge country of East Anglia, I have only encountered one Grey Partridge in the local fields, but every fast-retreating Red-legged Partridge is checked in the hopes of seeing another. More than six million Red-legged Partridges are released into the countryside every year by shooting estates, and while many thousands are shot or otherwise perish, these releases sustain a substantial breeding population of around 82 thousand pairs. While it may be tempting to blame the introduced Red-legged for the decline of the native Grey, there actually appears to be little direct interaction between the two species. Both Red-legged and Grey Partridges feed on farmland seeds, the availability of which has been greatly reduced by agricultural intensification, resulting in the significant declines seen in Grey Partridge. According to the Breeding Bird Survey, numbers of breeding Red-legged Partridges have also declined since their peak numbers in the 1970s, despite increasing numbers being released, possibly because correspondingly more are shot. While the two species do not appear to directly affect one another, there is evidence that shooting operations based on high numbers of Red-legged Partridges can lead to local extinction of the now red-listed Grey Partridge. When the first breeding bird atlas was published in the 1970s, Red-legged Partridges were mainly found in the drier southern and eastern areas of England, and had not been established in Scotland or Wales despite repeated attempts to introduce them. The explanation given at the time was that these parts were too wet for this southern European species, but since then they have successfully been introduced into Wales, the north of England, and Scotland, though they are still most common in the lowlands of East Anglia and around the Wash. We know relatively little about how far Red-legged Partridges move under their own steam, since there are no ringing recoveries; the spurs on their legs make it unsafe to fit numbered metal rings. However, the similarity of their summer and winter distributions suggests that these birds are not prone to moving large distances, and it seems likely that the increase in range is driven by birds spreading short distances from release sites. Their introduced British distribution represents a substantial increase in the global range of this species, which otherwise consists of the Iberian peninsula, central and southern France, and a small part of Italy. The population has declined in their native lands, partly due to over-hunting, loss of habitat and hybridisation. It is perhaps ironic that the pressure of maintaining a stock for sport, which has driven the huge increase of the species in this country, has also caused them to decline in their original range. While all bird populations are influenced by man to a greater or lesser extent, perhaps the most affected are those designated and exploited as game birds.
Kate Risely is the British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden Birdwatch Organiser
We know relatively little about how far Red-legged Partridges move under their own steam, since there are no ringing recoveries