A pas­sion for par­tridge

Alas­tair Salvesen is ap­ply­ing science to dra­mat­i­cally in­crease wildlife on his farm and has seen in­cred­i­ble re­sults, es­pe­cially for the grey par­tridge. Joe Dim­bleby re­ports

Sporting Shooter - - Conservation -

Alas­tair Salvesen’s Whit­burgh Farms com­prises 2,500 acres of mixed arable and beef, over­seen by farm grieve (man­ager) Jim Ni­chol. The pas­ture is con­cen­trated at one end of the farm, along with sheds to house 180 Aberdeen An­gus beef an­i­mals and 200 sheep. At the other end is a hi-tech bio­fuel grain stor­age and dry­ing fa­cil­ity and in be­tween a wide range of crops in­clud­ing oilseed rape, win­ter wheat, spring wheat, spring bar­ley and win­ter bar­ley.

In the past 10 years, Alas­tair has in­creased ben­e­fi­cial habi­tats to cover 7% of the land (175 acres) and has seen wild grey par­tridge (a species that has na­tion­ally de­clined by 95% since 1975) go from zero to 400 birds ac­cord­ing to au­tumn counts.

Alas­tair’s ap­proach is for­ward look­ing, em­brac­ing new tech­nolo­gies and find­ing novel so­lu­tions to the twin chal­lenges of in­creas­ing bio­di­ver­sity and farm­ing prof­itably. Whit­burgh Farms is a demon­stra­tion part­ner in the EU North Sea In­ter­reg Re­gion ‘Par­tridge’ project led by the GWCT. This works with 10 sites in five dif­fer­ent coun­tries to try to show how agri-en­vi­ron­ment schemes can be im­proved, us­ing ex­ist­ing so­lu­tions that work for grey par­tridge, along with tri­alling new ideas.

One of the chal­lenges is to achieve par­tridge re­cov­ery within the stan­dard CAP Green­ing reg­u­la­tions. Un­der Green­ing, farm­ers have to take 5% of their land out of pro­duc­tion as a con­di­tion of the EU Ba­sic Pay­ment Scheme. Whit­burgh has man­aged to meet this tar­get with hedges along­side un­cropped 8m mar­gins around ev­ery field.

The farm boasts an im­pres­sive 28 miles of hedgerows, which pro­vide shel­ter from weather and preda­tors. Alas­tair ex­plained: “We keep the hedges in good shape. We never cut both sides in the same year and try to widen them at the base and let them go up a bit higher. Ei­ther side of the hedge are 3m grass strips, which of­fer nest­ing sites, and next to that 4m of wild bird cover and 1m un­planted to al­low birds to dust them­selves.”

Work­ing in part­ner­ship with Oak­bank Seeds and Kings, GWCT has suc­ceeded in de­vel­op­ing suit­able cover crop mixes in­clud­ing wild­flow­ers to pro­duce in­sects for chicks, seed for food and broadleaves to pro­tect from weather and pre­da­tion. Re­sults have been pos­i­tive, but for Alas­tair other as­pects of the Green­ing and agri-en­vi­ron­ment pre­scrip­tions are im­prac­ti­cal and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive: “We are try­ing to ex­plain to the Scot­tish govern­ment that not be­ing al­lowed to spray the mar­gins for this­tles is very detri­men­tal to the farm­ing op­er­a­tion and makes you very un­pop­u­lar with neigh­bour­ing farms.

“We had to aban­don the five-year agrien­vi­ron­ment scheme where you had to top the this­tles in­stead of spray­ing, be­cause if you cut them in the breed­ing sea­son you risk killing the par­tridges, and af­ter that it is too late, the seed has spread on the wind. If we were al­lowed to spray

‘We have up to 12 buz­zard nests on the farm – which is more buz­zards per hectare than any­where else in Europe’

early in the year, it wouldn’t do any dam­age to the other plants and would al­low aphids to mul­ti­ply for the birds. Spray­ing shouldn’t be for­bid­den, it’s a mat­ter of when you do it.”

One of the prin­ci­ple chal­lenges in mak­ing Green­ing work is the Scot­tish weather. Un­like the south of Eng­land, frost-free con­di­tions can’t be guar­an­teed un­til 1 June, so most cover crop mixes have to go in late. This means try­ing to find mixes that last two or three years to pro­vide cover all year round.

The heav­ier rain­fall also cre­ates prob­lems. “Be­cause of the rain this year, one field of straw was turned seven times,” Alas­tair ex­plained. “The headache we have is some of our crops ripen quite late and gaps in the weather are few and far be­tween. It is im­por­tant to avoid bal­ing straw af­ter dark as the young par­tridges may be roost­ing, but chang­ing weather pat­terns could mean that this is the only way to keep abreast of the har­vest and re­plant­ing pro­gramme.”

No longer be­ing in the agri-en­vi­ron­ment scheme means the farm has to pick up more of the bill. “We get as­sis­tance un­der the Green­ing sys­tem, but we recog­nise that it’s not go­ing to cover the whole cost,” Alas­tair says. “I still be­lieve it is pos­si­ble to have suc­cess­ful con­ser­va­tion and prof­itable farm­ing, but it’s far more mar­ginal than I would like.”

He is con­vinced that it is only by gather­ing the ev­i­dence that these mes­sages will be heard by the govern­ment’s agri­cul­tural depart­ments and lead to new leg­is­la­tion. “They only lis­ten to us be­cause we are work­ing with the GWCT, which has the sci­en­tific ex­per­tise,” he says.

Along­side the farm­ing op­er­a­tion, gamekeeping is an es­sen­tial el­e­ment. The pheas­ant shoot means Alas­tair can em­ploy a full-time keeper, Gra­ham Rank­ine, who puts out feed for the birds in win­ter and spring and con­trols all the gen­er­al­ist preda­tors that can be legally man­aged. How­ever, the par­tridges and other farm­land birds are in­creas­ingly un­der at­tack from buz­zards and spar­rowhawks, both pro­tected species, whose num­bers have in­creased dra­mat­i­cally. Part of the GWCT study at Whit­burgh Farms project is to try to es­tab­lish sci­en­tific ev­i­dence to de­ter­mine whether rap­tor pre­da­tion could threaten sim­i­lar con­ser­va­tion projects across the coun­try.

Alas­tair ex­plained: “We have up to 12 buz­zard nests on the farm plus three nests nearby. Ac­cord­ing to pub­lished es­ti­mates, we there­fore have more buz­zards per hectare than any­where else in Europe. We tagged sev­eral par­tridges and the av­er­age mor­tal­ity rate from three years of tag­ging was one third lost to rap­tors with sev­eral tags turn­ing up in buz­zards’ nests.”

Walk­ers are wel­come at Whit­burgh Farms as long as they stick to foot­paths and keep dogs un­der close con­trol, but there is an un­in­tended con­se­quence of the Right to Roam law, which could have cat­a­strophic con­se­quences for Scot­land’s grey par­tridges. The leg­is­la­tion al­lows mem­bers of the public to walk any­where on pri­vate prop­erty and en­cour­ages walk­ers to go round the edges of fields to avoid crop dam­age. This means par­tridges and yel­lowham­mers risk los­ing their broods to dogs when they raise them in the mar­gins.

Alas­tair is mo­ti­vated to over­come all these chal­lenges by the suc­cess of wild grey par­tridge, a bird he is clearly cap­ti­vated by. He said: “When I bought Whit­burgh my pre­de­ces­sor had been buy­ing grey par­tridge eggs, rear­ing and re­leas­ing. For the last 10 years we have not added any eggs or poults to the wild stock and the birds are far more aware and able to cope with danger. Last year was our first day’s shoot­ing. We shot 25 birds, but see­ing over 300 fly­ing that day was magic and ap­pre­ci­ated by all the Guns and beat­ers alike.”

The grey par­tridge is an in­di­ca­tor species, and the greater bio­di­ver­sity on the farm has helped threat­ened species in­clud­ing yel­lowham­mers, lap­wing and tree spar­rows. Hares have ben­e­fit­ted in par­tic­u­lar, num­ber­ing in their hun­dreds.

This im­pres­sive out­come is the re­sult of a huge de­gree of com­mit­ment and co­op­er­a­tion from ev­ery­one work­ing on the farm. Alas­tair said: “We are do­ing ev­ery­thing in hand and ev­ery­one in­volved has to have a good work­ing re­la­tion­ship, from the game­keeper to the grieve.”

Farm grieve Jim Ni­chol ex­plained how the crop ro­ta­tion sys­tem he man­ages at Whit­burgh is uniquely geared to farm­land bird con­ser­va­tion: “In a con­ven­tional block sys­tem with huge ar­eas of one crop, when a crop is har­vested, birds may sud­denly have to travel long dis­tances to find food or shel­ter, so we have di­vided the farm into four quar­ters with a ro­ta­tion of wheat, bar­ley and oilseed rape within each. This gives them a wide range of habi­tats close to­gether, from stub­bles for win­ter roost­ing to in­sect-rich ar­eas.”

Look­ing to the fu­ture, Alas­tair has im­pres­sive plans for Whit­burgh Farms em­ploy­ing the lat­est tech­nol­ogy. The farm has one of the best car­bon foot­prints in the coun­try thanks to so­lar pan­els on the cat­tle sheds and a state-of-the-art wood­chip burner to dry the grain, which uses chip­pings from the es­tate sav­ing £40k of oil per year.

The drive for self-suf­fi­ciency also ex­tends to the cat­tle. Jim Ni­chol is de­vel­op­ing a closed herd of Whit­burgh pedi­grees and is pleased with their first young bulls. On the arable side, the farm is us­ing satel­lite map­ping to find where the struc­ture of the ground changes to re­duce fer­til­izer us­age, and it is tri­alling a live bac­te­ria treat­ment to help soil struc­ture. Fi­nally, Alas­tair’s fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple for sus­tain­abil­ity is to lis­ten to peo­ple who work the land. He said: “Here at Whit­burgh Farms, we are try­ing to cre­ate ev­i­dence for the reg­u­la­tors and come up with some­thing that is sen­si­ble and works.

If you are just think­ing about these things in the heat of an of­fice you

can­not com­pre­hend what is hap­pen­ing out in the field. We are work­ing with GWCT to help peo­ple un­der­stand what’s re­al­is­tic in farm­ing and how na­ture works. The GWCT has al­ways recog­nised it’s a question of bal­ance and I be­lieve in that strongly.”

Alas­tair Salvesen, left, and farm man­ager Jim Ni­chol

Grey par­tridge have strug­gled to breed suc­cess­fully, with no chicks sur­viv­ing from 30 mon­i­tored nests

The farm is a con­ser­va­tion suc­cess story thanks to care­ful plan­ning and land man­age­ment

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