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Initiatives In Common

Grey Partridge Project

Wednesday 23 May 2012

The East Neuk Estates are very pleased to be associated with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trusts (GWCT) grey partridge project which is to be launched by Richard Lochhead, Cabinet secretary, on the 13th June at the Whitburgh Estate in Midlothian.

Background

The grey partridge perdix perdix is a native species long associated in Scotland with arable ground and the moorland fringe. Once abundant and the mainstay of sporting interest in the lowlands for generations it is now sadly very much in decline. Reasons for the decline are complex and only recently becoming better understood. They appear to be a combination of lack of chick food (they live exclusively on insects when very young) associated with modern farming techniques, a shortage of food in the winter also a characteristic of the modern farmed landscape and increased pressure from predators, both ground and avian.

There are however, startling examples (mostly in England) where the species has staged an astonishing recovery when “pro-partridge” management is introduced. The GWCT plan is to demonstrate best practice on the Whitburgh Estate over several years while carefully monitoring song birds, insects and partridge numbers. The East Neuk Estates involvement is to provide a “control” where many of the same things are monitored without necessarily adopting the same intensity of management.

Why it Matters

The grey partridge is identified as an “umbrella species” , that is to say that management practice which enables the partridge to thrive is also very good for songbirds and other farmland birds that have been in substantial decline on and off over the last 40 years. Many of the partridges’ requirements, insect food, nesting cover and winter food supplies are shared by other birds: yellow hammers, skylarks and corn buntings for example. Because The East Neuk, including the area covered by the East Neuk Estates, is the last refuge of the corn bunting in Fife the fate of this once common bird is of deep concern to the owners of the East Neuk Estates.

Progress

In 2011 a team of volunteers counted songbirds on 7 separate Km2 on the East Neuk Estates on 2 different occasions in the summer following the protocols of the British Bird Survey (BBS). The squares were chosen to be representative of the different farming systems and management efforts practiced but were all in open countryside rather than amongst the densely wooded parts of the Estates. A researcher from St Andrews University was also employed by the Estates to carry out detailed sampling of the insects in cereal endriggs (where partridges tend to feed). In that endeavour we were severely hampered by the weather and so we weren’t able to sample as intensively as we would have liked. A pity, but not everything goes always to plan.

We also counted partridges in the spring and autumn over some of the Estates in order to determine the total population and their productivity. The same was happening at Whitburgh (if in rather greater detail) and so the project now has the necessary baseline data.

The Future

The plan is to count the 7 squares again this year and the GWCT will supply a team of enthusiasts to carry out the insect sampling. They will use the same protocol as the Trust uses elsewhere so it should be possible to produce a comparable chick food index for each site. Covey (or brood) size has been very closely correlated with insect abundance elsewhere and we want to see if the same holds true here.

At Whitburgh the Trust scientists are radio-tracking partridges this year and it would be a triumph if we could secure funding to do the same research here. In the meantime we will be counting song bird and monitoring the partridge populations. Some Estates are carrying out active management to support partridges, notably Balcaskie where the extensive hedge planting in recent years is expected to have a massive impact on partridge and song bird numbers.

UPDATE 2016

The Estates have continued their support for the restoration of grey partridges. At Gilston the wild headland technique - fertiliser and herbicide free headlands in in cereal crops - is now the subject of rigorous scientific evaluation. Balcaskie embarked on wild headlands on their in-hand farms in 2015 following a trial in 2014 and have seen substantial increases in the number of surviving young in partridge coveys - a key measure of habitat quality.

Partridge counting continues and in due course the bird surveys will be repeated and a measure of the changes in bird populations recorded. We are hopeful of significant improvement in numbers of farmland birds. we will report developments here.

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