Just across the Channel, not long after you leave the ferry at Calais or Bordeaux and turn right, you find yourself driving across the high rolling plains of Picardy. According to the guidebooks, this is not a place you are likely to linger, since you are probably hurrying on towards Normandy, Paris or the South.
“Very like parts of the south of England,” the books say, suggesting that the landscape is not exciting. Apart from Amiens Cathedral and lots of war memorials, the travel writers don’t find much to write about as they rush on to Paris. And yet this undulating country, part forest, part open plain above the Somme, is fascinating for the game-shooting enthusiast because, despite the fact that it looks so like Wiltshire, it has something that our downlands have lost.
Many of the farms in Picardy have partridges – grey partridges in large numbers, thriving alongside the sugar beet, wheat and oilseed rape.
Jacques Hicter is the man who has proved that you can have both a profitable farm and a successful partridge-shoot in today?s landscape. And he has just made a film to prove the point. It is called Perdreaux et Quintaux, which translates as “partridges and yields”, or “coveys and corn”, because the message Hicter wants to put across is that the farmer can have them both.
He describes himself as a farmer by profession and a hunter by inclination. He has also proved to be an adept conservationist. Just one of his many statistics tells a large part of the story. When Jacques started to improve the management of his stock in the mid Seventies, he had 11 pairs of partridges on each square kilometre of his two farms. Today he averages more than 80 pairs per square kilometre.
To put that into perspective, the Game & Wildlife Conservancy Trust’s (G&WCT) Royston project in Hertfordshire has been greeted as a huge success because it increased the number of grey partridges from three pairs to 18 pairs per square kilometre.
And Hicter has not sacrificed the profitability of his farms to develop the shoot. As he says: “I don’t have to be ashamed of 10 tons of wheat per acre or 4½ tons of oilseed rape. Partridges can co-habit with modern, productive agriculture.”
His techniques are straightforward, none of them unique, but he does take great personal interest in his birds, and his hands-on approach brings big rewards. He improves the birds’ environment by using long strips of “edge habitat”, feeds generously, controls predators and manages the shooting very accurately – with the annual bag sometimes exceeding 400 birds – so that the stock numbers are maintained.
Hicter’s system has brought lots of shooting enthusiasts on pilgrimage to parts of north-eastern France. Keepers from all the great partridge manors of Norfolk, biologists from Britain and France, and, above all, his neighbours, have learnt from his methods.
Both his wife’s family and his own have farmed in Picardy for generations. Today he works 300 hectares of the clay and limestone uplands at Savy and Bois du Cabaret. Sitting in his office, surrounded by roebuck heads and photographs of partridge-shooting days, he says, “My ambition has been to rediscover the ecosystem that used to exist here, particularly at the beginning of the last century.” He lists grey partridges (there are no redlegs), pheasants, quail, thrushes, larks, orioles, songbirds, pigeon, doves, rabbits, hares and deer. “I have even reintroduced snails,” he declares.
He says that the drought year of 1976, when farmers had to use large quantities of insecticides to battle infestations, is often seen as the crisis point for Picardy’s wildlife. But he shows an old map of the region and points out that the difficulties began more than 10 years earlier with the consolidation of farms; three- or four-hectare fields became 30- to 40-hectare fields, and hedges and the miles of the earth banks that had divided neighbouring holdings on the plateau disappeared.
“They did not leave a single centimetre of non-productive land,” he says. “What did that leave for game? Nothing, of course.”
Dr Stephen Tapper of the G&WCT was among the British game managers who heard about Hicter’s successes in this drastically changing landscape. He says, “We had known about the Picardy region for some time – it popped up on the radar of our former director, Dick Potts, about 15 years ago. He was the first person to go over and look for himself.
“Obviously it is a good area for partridges, and it may partly be the landscape, but one of the things that is different is that it never appears to have supported the numbers of predators that are typical of UK hedgerow countryside. Dick used to say that there are great densities of partridges on Hicter’s farms but the landscape is so bare that foxes just don’t bother hunting it.”
Tapper continues: “One of the interesting things that Hicter was doing was putting out lots of feeders for his birds. Every partridge pair had a hopper and Dick was convinced that it was one of the things that made big difference. The keepers at one estate in Norfolk have adopted this approach and built up their stock very rapidly. We put out feeders at Royston from the very beginning as well.”
Hicter places considerable emphasis on his feeding and says he puts out eight or nine tons of wheat on the farms each year, continuing to fill the hoppers during most months, with only a short break around harvest. Many of his pairs nest close to these sources of nourishing food.
The G&CWT team thought of applying the idea of hopper feeding of partridges more generally but felt it was not always applicable. For example, if there are large numbers of pheasants they dominate the feeders. Tapper says: “You can end up feeding the wrong birds.”
Hicter emphasises that his farms are “insect rich”. Tapper says, “The thing that tends to govern insect production year by year is the weather, and warm springs bring more insects, so it is quite likely that in Picardy, which has a slightly more Continental climate, there would be more insects.” Hicter says that his undulating grass strips of fescue and cocksfoot, with occasional 20 metre-long hedges, shelter predatory insects, which help to slow down aphid infestations in his crops (although he also uses pesticides and herbicides).
Martin Tickler of the G&WCT, who has known Hicter for years, says, “He tries to use his big machines with maximum efficiency but still plans to have a spring crop alongside a winter crop all across the farm to create the maximum amount of ‘edge’. He has planted hedges, but they are not like ours. The French believe that you don’t need a continuous hedge, except for driving. As far as nesting is concerned, they believe you are better off with an open-bottom hedge that has gaps in it. Jacques was going round Holkham one day with me, looking at their beautifully manicured hedges, and he said, “What they really need to do is to get a bulldozer and punch some holes!” They believe that the partridges like the gaps and they like to be able to see all around. There is a lot of myth and magic concerning the partridge on both sides of the Channel.?
But Hicter quotes statistics as well as folklore. He puts particular emphasis on his no-ploughing policy, which has reduced nitrate input, cut erosion on the slopes and improved soil structure. And his fuel costs are down by 30 per cent. Tickler says: “His farm is minimum tillage, which he believes is helpful. When you stop ploughing, you greatly increase your earthworm numbers. In France, snipe and woodcock are important and they feed on earthworms. This may not affect the partridges directly, but the French argue that if you leave the soil undisturbed you get a larger number of invertebrates for birds to feed on.”
In the early stages of developing the shoot there were two part-time keepers who did some trapping, mainly setting leg-hold snares for foxes on middens. Tickler says: “They control similar predators to us. Now he does most of the keepering himself, with the help of a friend. There is no full-time keeper.”
The main management techniques are the creation of nesting habitat and constant feeding from hoppers. Tickler continues, “He sows strips of all his crops, trying to create the greatest possible amount of linear edge. His winter wheat in March forms a ‘hedge’, only a few inches tall but effective, where it meets a spring crop such as sugar beet or spring barley. Hoppers, about 150m apart, run along the edges of all the crops on this wide open space, as the crop grows, the hopper disappears, so they mark each one with fir branches and refer to it as a ?point of reparation?, the centre of a cock partridge’s territory. The pairs are at the hoppers in the early morning or in the evening. French researchers also found that most nests are within 20 metres of the hoppers, usually in the crop.
“Spare hoppers are always carried in the Land Rover and if two cocks are seen fighting a hopper is put out nearby for the vanquished bird to take over as his own. They ‘think partridge’ all the time. Jacques says that when you are placing hoppers you should put them in areas the birds favour rather than following a set plan. He argues that the hoppers not only anchor the pairs but that the wheat keeps the hens in better condition than they would be on green food,” says Tickler.
Hicter adds, “The grey partridge is a mascot, the emblem of our plains here in Picardy. It is truly the bird of our land – a beautiful, beautiful bird.”
A few free copies of Perdreaux et Quintaux in English are available. To request one email firstname.lastname@example.org