Bringing the grey partridge back to Northumberland; In light of declining numbers, Coquetdale farmers have committed to created sustainable habitats for the birds. ROBERT GIBSON reports.
ONCE upon a time, it wasn't uncommon to spot a grey partridge in the UK countryside. Now, though, that is no longer the case.
According to the British Trust for Ornithology's Breeding Bird Surveys, the population decreased by 91% between 1967 and 2010, so that the bird is now classified as a priority species in the UK bio-dioversity action plan.
On a local level, the situation is similar, with one-time partridge hotspots like Northumberland witnessing a serious decline.
In Upper Coquetdale in particular, this year's Northumbrian Bird Atlas shows that there was a major drop in numbers between 1988 and 1992, with four areas experiencing what was deemed to be a "major loss".
The Coquetdale Farmers Group - formed to boost productivity and financial efficiency while improving the environment - has therefore agreed to a long-term commitment to reintroduce the elusive bird.
"The objective of the project is to create a sustainable population of grey partridge in Upper Coquetdale for conservation purposes and to bring pleasure to people through observing them in their natural habitat," said Graham Dixon of Alwinton Farm, which took the lead during the first year of the initiative.
"We felt that through combining our practical knowledge with the research, a re-introduction project was worth trying."
Beginning in 2013, the farmers carried out a survey of 33 farms and found that while, historically, all had had breeding pairs successfully rearing coveys, this was no longer so; one 3,000-acre stretch, for example, had seen 35 pairs drop to just one in the matter of three decades.
The reasons for the decline were numerous - from a reduction in predator control to climate change - but the farmers agreed there was a great deal of suitable habitat available for the birds, much of which had actually been improved throughout the past 30 years with the establishment of native woodland, hedge planting and late mowing of traditional hay meadows in Higher Level Stewardship schemes.
The survey also indicated that there were a significant number of farmers and shepherds prepared to commit time and effort to help reverse the decline.
Upper Coquetdale, where the land is classified as moorland and is deemed 'severely disadvantaged', is known is predominately for livestock breeding and rearing.
While the majority of the research into partridge reintroduction had been conducted in lowland and arable situations, however, there was sufficient reason to believe the Northumberland farmers' aims could be achieved.
Reassuringly, it had also been proven that management practices that benefit the grey partridge also have positive effects on wider farmland diversity.
Hence, a pilot was launched, with the farmers utilising their own research, as well as support from Dr Marian Dawkins, head of zoology at Oxford University, to first agree a set of principles: Undertake predator control |during the winter; Raise birds from eggs; | Grow the birds as strong as pos-|sible before release; Imprint the birds as coveys on |to their intended release sites; | Release the birds as whole cov-|eys in the autumn; Establish feed sties in the |release areas and maintain them over the winter 'hungry gap'; and Monitor sightings as part of |daily farm management.
On the advice of Dr Dawkins, it was agreed the project would start small, firstly on Alwinton Farm alone, before introducing new sites - such as Featherwood, Quickening Cote, Park House, Well House, Elilaw and Burradon Windyside - over the following years.
To start, legal vermin control was carried out, with particular emphasis on carrion crow, before F1 grey partridge hatching eggs arrived in three batches from Perdix Wildlife Supplies.
Incubation took place over 25 days, with live chicks being removed to brooder areas in their respective age groups, the feed being game chick crumb, mini pellets and growers' pellets, with mixed corn introduced prior to release.
The size of the brooder areas, then, was gradually increased as chicks grew and environmental enhancements were added.
By early September last year, 44 young birds were introduced to the release pen and held for 14 days prior to release.
"This was a carefully selected site with natural cover, looking up the Valley towards the hills with plenty of bracken cover, woodland, open pasture area and streams," Mr Dixon said.
"This allowed the birds to imprint on to the area where feed stations were located and allowed for daily monitoring.
"In terms of 'normal versus maladaptive behaviours', it was pleasing to see the birds become 'wild' very quickly."
Upon release the birds stayed in the immediate area for a couple of days before gradually beginning to explore their new habitat further.
For approximately two weeks, they returned to the release pen feed station daily, and once the farmers had learned their preferred areas, additional feed stations were introduced within the boundaries of Alwinton Farm's 1,000 acres.
"Daily sightings reduced as the area covered increased," Mr Dixon said.
"A wild grey barren single male adopted a covey of 12 young birds and these were seen some five miles further up the valley in December.
"We surmise that he returned to his home ground, taking the released young ones with him. A feed station was set up and they were monitored over the winter.
"All but two appeared to have survived their first winter."
He added that all the birds had seemed to "disappear" around late October, before being seen regularly again from December onwards at Alwinton Hill.
In April, as the project progressed into its second year, five pairs returned to Alwinton Farm to breed.
Three were successful in hatching four, seven and eight chicks respectively; one pair lost their five hatchlings; and the female of the fifth pair was predated.
"We suspect the success rate would have been greater, but there was a very cold and wet spell during the hatching period," Mr Dixon said.
"The young birds are strong, with good distribution around the farm. Legal predator control, mainly of carrion crow, was again carried out over the winter and spring.
"We feel this was significant to the successful breeding of the returned pairs and also of other ground nesting birds such as lapwings, curlew and oyster catchers.
"Eggs were again obtained from Perdix Wildlife Suppliers, delivered in two batches and incubated in the incubator.
"Knowledge gained in year one for hatching and raising was applied with 104 birds growing on well before being moved to release pens on different farms.
"They are being released in natural covey sizes of 12 to 18 birds."
He added that the project had made a good start, with the farmers' group learning how to hatch and rear chicks, grow strong young birds, imprint them on to suitable terrain and observe their progress.
He noted, however, that since the project was self-funded and it had not so far been possible to purchase expensive tracking equipment, monitoring the birds' presence over an extensive and sparsely populated area had been challenging.
"Of the 44 birds released in the autumn of 2014, the project's first year, half of the birds were consistently seen at Alwinton over the winter; of the separate covey of 12 that made their home further up the valley, 10 survived into the spring," he said.
"To date we have observed five successful breeding pairs with coveys. There is a strong likelihood that there will be other successful breeding pairs which have not been observed, given the extensive nature of the terrain.
"Looking at the challenges identified by previous research, our birds have not displayed any of the maladaptive practices described, thus justifying the initial additional expense of the genetics of the F1 wild eggs.
"Another positive aspect of the project is the pro-active collaboration between farmers who have invested significant time into project, resulting in habitat improvement and legal predator control which we feel has helped the breeding success rate not just for the grey partridge but other ground nesting birds."
Alwinton Farm, which led the Coquetdale Farmers Group partridge <B reintroduction project in its first year
The Upper Coquet Valley has suffered a decline in its grey partridge <B population, with four areas experiencing a 'major loss'
The Coquetdale Farmers Group used F1 wild eggs as the basis for its grey partridge reintroduction project
The grey <Bpartridges are taken out to release pens before being introduced to a carefully selected site with natural cover
Graham Dixon of Alwinton Farm