Case Study – A Wild Partridge Project – Allendale Estates, Northumberland, November 2017
When Lord Allendale decided, in 2012, that he wanted to develop a wild bird shoot at Bywell he knew the first thing he needed to do was to recruit a first class ‘keeper. In Alan Edwards he found one. Alan had been a grouse ‘keeper, man and boy, so knew something about predator control! However, whereas well managed heather delivers all the habitat that a grouse requires, wild pheasants and partridges have a much more diverse requirement and this has been the steepest learning curve at Bywell. The Estate covers about 2,500 hectares but the project area is 750ha, with around 2/3rds farmed in hand and the rest tenanted. Cropping was largely winter cereals and oilseed rape with a small area of trials and organic cropping run by the Newcastle University Department of Agriculture.
Alan’s first count in spring 2013 uncovered 9 pairs of grey partridges on the project area and these were all found near rough field corners and overgrown hedges – the only areas that provided a semblance of cover and insect-rich foraging areas. Alan immediately set about feeding and protecting his stock. Within a year 200 tunnel traps were in place and up to 300 snares in action. This intensive trapping of mammalian predators, combined with larsens and ladder traps for corvids significantly reduced the predation pressure and the 9 pairs produced over 100 young that summer.
The ‘bounce’ effect, when you remove predators and the prey species immediately increase, has been well documented but for the growth to be sustained it has to be done in conjunction with the right habitat provision and in this regard the project was seriously lacking. The absence of any spring crops or root crops and very few unmanaged areas meant that brood rearing and winter cover were virtually non-existent. We visited the project in spring 2013 and, with agreement from the home farm and most of the tenant farms came up with a plan to put in place a network of headland habitats to try and deliver the brood-rearing and winter cover that the partridges would need if the population was to increase.
We took 6m headland strips around a number of fields on the project area, especially headlands adjacent to good hedgerows but not alongside heavily wooded areas. The 3m next to the hedge was planted with a grass-free, legume and wild flower mix, whilst the 3m next to the crop was planted with a perennial mix containing chicory, reed canary grass, lucerne and reed millet. Some of the strips grew too well, some were patchy and some were perfect but they all delivered diversity, insects and cover. Most importantly they can all be managed to provide long-term habitats rather than be replaced every year.
So, a year after the project began the 9 pairs had turned in to 36 pairs and the 36 pairs produced an autumn 2014 count of 415 grey partridges on the project area with a young to old ratio of 4.7:1. In 2015 Sarah Brockless from Oakbank began to plan four new Countryside Stewardship Schemes on the Estate covering 700Ha. These schemes, now all in place, are paying for a considerable amount of extra habitat for farm wildlife and the partridges are benefiting too. As well as floristic margins and plots (AB8), Nectar flower mixes (AB1), Over-winter stubbles (AB2) and Winter Bird Food (AB9) the agreements include autumn sown bumblebird mixes (AB16), Cultivated plots for lapwing (AB5) and cultivated headlands for arable plants (AB11). The increased and focused habitat has improved farmland bird numbers dramatically with breeding lapwings in particular now thriving. Whilst intensive grassland is not particularly beneficial for wildlife, under the new schemes Sarah managed to get funding for taking some grass out of the intensive system through buffer strips, very low input grass and taking corners out of management completely. Water courses have been buffered and a section of Hadrian’s Wall earthworks that runs through the estate has also been protected. Funding has also been obtained for hedgerow restoration.
All of this habitat improvement combined with in excess of 500 hoppers feeding wheat, meant that Alan was able to hold more birds on the ground over-winter and an increase in insect numbers meant that breeding success was also increased. So much so that in the autumn of 2016 there was a shootable surplus of greys. The issue then was how to drive them as there are no root crops, the traditional driving crop for greys, on the Estate. Utilising over-winter stubbles and fallow plots, Alan was able to sow some decent blocks of turnip/mustard and forage rape on four fields to create a focal point to blank partridges into and then drive over the waiting guns. An unharvested block of beans and a field of clover acted as the other drives and in October 2016, 6 guns managed to shoot 36 brace of wild greys as well as a decent bag of wild pheasants, hares and pigeons.
As well as trapping, lamping, managing the habitats and feeding the birds Alan has found time to fell 10 acres of woodland for timber and this will be reinstated as ‘scrubby’ woodland to discourage aerial predators. Improving the existing woodland has also resulted in woodcock returning to the Estate in large numbers.