SEVERAL times last season I was shooting on drives where redleg partridges came forward that were too low to shoot. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a partridge being low, of course, as long as it is sporting. Indeed, a covey is probably at its very best when shown exploding over a hedge 30yd in front of standing guns and shot well forward. But many of the birds I saw last winter were just sluggish, if not unsafe. The very worst glided by at the height of bolting rabbits.
These were, of course, an extreme. At the other end of the spectrum, let me quickly reassure my generous hosts, I saw some splendid partridge shooting too. But in talking to others since the season ended, I find I am not alone in believing that, on balance, red-legged partridges aren’t flying as well as they used to.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, you may be remembering that the chukar partridges (release of which was outlawed in the early Nineties for conservation reasons) were widely criticised towards their end as being idle birds.
Sportsmen rejoiced when the pure-bred redleg partridges that replaced chukar partridges performed so much better. They had real vigour and flew like rockets. Even the game farmers, who found them more awkward to breed, had to admit that switching to pure red-legged partridges had transformed reared-partridge shooting.
In those heady early years the new red-legged partridges often needed an army of beaters to get them to fly in the right direction. Percentage returns were low but the quality made up for it. Now, I suspect, the proportions shot are higher and the birds certainly seem easier to manage. Last season I witnessed red-legged partridges being driven by just a handful of men, the birds flushing lamely from the hedgerow bottoms and gliding forward with barely a change of direction when they saw the guns.
So what has happened?
Some argue that such birds are just sick. Experienced pickers-up say that they can be small and have prominent breastbones. It is certainly the case that partridges can carry many diseases and gut parasites, those of the genus Hexamita being particularly debilitating. The past two summers have been damp and cool, favouring disease and not suiting the red-legged partridges (originally a bird of southern Europe), so some poor flying is almost certainly attributable to disease. After all, it’s widely accepted that a grouse weakened by excessive strongyle worms will be a poor flyer on a shoot day.
Another theory is that the reluctant red-legged partridges are in some way unfit. This could be the case, for example, where they have not long been out of their pens. We know that all birds generally fly more strongly as the season progresses and if a partridge has scarcely flown before we can hardly blame it if it flies badly. Delayed release as a result of disease or a late harvest won’t help, but where weak birds are seen all through the season, the unwelcome possibility arises that “top-up” releasing may have occurred. The Code of Good Shooting Practice forbids topping up and, while I’m not suggesting it is widespread, it could be a factor in some places.
Partridge shooting – what is to blame for poor flying red-legged partridges?
The most likely causes of poor flying red-legged partridges are
genetic. Those early, pure-bred red-legged partridges that went so well for us
immediately after the chukar partridge ban were bred largely from wild stock,
caught up in a hurry from Denmark, Spain, France and indeed anywhere
else that chukar-free blood-lines could still be found.
wild-type birds from these different sources were mixed on game farms
they must also have benefited from the phenomenon known as “hybrid
vigour”. These factors probably account for the quality performances in
those early years.
Since those hectic times, however, artificial
production has settled down and breeding flocks have been largely
composed of game-farm stock held back each year at the end of the
rearing season. The red-legged partridges that lay the eggs from which the birds we
now shoot come have been in captivity, some of them in unrefreshed
“closed flocks”, for approaching 10 generations. We cannot expect the
progeny of such stock to give of their best.
CHUKAR PARTRIDGE HYBRIDS
Furthermore, some people suspect that chukar partridge blood may be finding its way back in through misguided selection. Good egg-producing birds may well be the ones with an element of chukar partridge blood. Breed successively from them and the chukar genes will come to dominate once more. Shoot advisers from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust tell me that in recent seasons, when they have been asked to help with poor-flying redlegs, they have sometimes seen the tell-tale second dark band on the wing feathers diagnostic of a chukar hybrid.
If you remain unconvinced that the problems are largely genetic, consider the parallel in the pheasant world. During the Nineties there was widespread dissatisfaction with the way pheasants were flying. Year-on-year average performance seemed to be falling. The gene pool was stale, with insufficient injections of fresh blood. Worse still, laying flocks were largely composed of birds caught up at the end of the shooting season – the very birds that had been spared simply because they were the poor fliers.
The issue became an obsession and then, suddenly, a marketing opportunity. Game farmers worked out how they could break the cycle. Many began to hold back a carefully managed breeding flock rather than rely on catching up. All sorts of new pheasant blood-lines were introduced from around the world to reinvigorate the gene pool. We had Michigan Bluebacks, Japanese Greens and strange-sounding breeds from central Asia. Whatever their individual merits, the new birds did the trick. Pheasants became vigorous once more. They wandered like mad once released but if a keeper could hold on to enough to show on a shoot, his tips would be generous. The bad days were over.
With red-legged partridge the bad days may just be beginning. The idle performers we see now could be the start of a growing problem. What can be done about it? The good news is that we have the experience of the pheasant to show us what needs to happen. The bad news is that the matter is largely out of our hands. To be specific, it is in the hands of the French.
THE FRENCH PROBLEM
Around 90% of all the red-legged partridge shot in this country have their origin in an egg produced in France. Fewer than a dozen UK game farms still retain a breeding flock of redlegs, while very few gamekeepers hatch their own partridge eggs. Nearly all buy in eggs or day-olds produced by a French game farm industry that has grown up in the past 20 years specifically to supply the UK market. Located primarily in the Loire and Vendee regions, it has the advantages of good climate, tax breaks and the Continental traditions of family labour and co-operative farming, both of which suit game production.
Persuading this European industry to improve its product for the sake of UK sportsmen by out-crossing to new blood-lines won’t be as easy as solving the one-time pheasant crisis. Poor-flying pheasants were improved in this country by game farmers who were shooting men and could see the problems at first hand. By contrast, few French partridge producers have ever raised a gun to a redleg in Britain; their involvement rarely continues beyond the sale of a chick.
As the UK shooting market contracts with the recession and the weak pound hinders overseas exporters, British buyers should tell their French suppliers exactly what they expect. If certain producers could reliably supply better fliers, they’d eventually succeed at the expense of the rest.
In theory there should also be a way for more quality red-legged partridge production to be based in the UK, surely a desirable end-point. The conundrum is that a vigorous cock partridge needs to be paired, not flock-mated, or it may damage its fellow birds. Pairing requires a small pen, while disease factors imply raising that pen off the ground. But with the current uncertainty about the political future of raised laying units in the UK, few British game rearers are likely to invest heavily in redleg production in the foreseeable future.
In the meantime, we must make the best of what we have while urging suppliers to improve their product year-on-year. There are still strains of red-legged partridge that fly well, especially in Spain, where their flying ability has been so good as to sustain the myth that most are truly wild. Experts say you can even tell these better-flying strains by looking at them in the hand, so it should be possible to select breeders for flying ability rather than just egg production.
More Partridge shooting in The Field:
Partridge shooting on the Buccleuch Estate
Partridge shooting at Powderham Castle
Partridge shooting – endangered?