“There’s a pair of grey partridges that like this particular feeder. Whether we shall see them or whether they’ll keep a low profile…” shrugs Mike Swan as we rumble along a dirt road on the side of a barley field somewhere in south-east England. There are so many county lines around here it’s easy to forget where you are.
Speaking on the phone a few days earlier, Mike was just as unsure we would see any grey partridges and thought it would be a shame to drive so far then go home with nothing. So I booked an extra night in the hotel just in case. I shouldn’t have bothered.
Less than half an hour after setting off to search the estate, two greys literally crossed our path as we approached a feeder. The birds had been at the same spot the day before.
“That hopper is full of wheat and they’ll be using that whenever they feel peckish,” says Mike. “They will probably nest within 30 or 40 yards of that hopper.”
The grey partridge was once Britain’s top gamebird, with 2 million shot each year between 1870 and 1930, according to the National Gamebag Census, which goes back to 1793. Changes in farming saw numbers crash 40% after the Second World War. Today, grey partridges are a sign of farmland managed with wildlife in mind.
People like Mike, through his work with the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, are giving the birds a boost but it’s a complicated business that relies heavily on predator control and creating the right environment.
“They’ve got a patch, they’ve got a food source, they’ve good nesting cover around… so they’ve basically got what they need. Of all the crops we grow, the spring barley gets the least complex management, so the spring barley is much more likely to contain a decent amount of insects to feed their chicks than the other crops, so that means that these ones in these big barley fields at this end are in with a decent chance of producing some good coveys.”