The UK’s grey partridge is red-listed as a bird of high conservation concern by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). Numbers had been falling in the long term anyway, but the species has suffered a devastating decline over the past 40 years. In 1986, research published by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (G&WCT) identified the chain effect of agricultural intensification and its reliance on herbicides as the cause of the decline. Evidently herbicides kill the food plants of the insect larvae that comprise the diet of newly hatched grey partridge chicks. A decrease in both abundance and distribution signals danger for any species. Alarm bells rang.

In 1995, greys were given priority under the government’s UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) that set a target date for an improvement in numbers and range. The date came and went without cause for celebration. In 2007 the government consulted the G&WCT in its role as lead partner for grey partridge recovery and a new set of targets was agreed.

Grey partridge numbers must now reach 90,000 pairs by 2010, 120,000 pairs by 2015 and 160,000 pairs by 2020. The base figure for these is the 2005 total of 65,000 breeding pairs. Dr Nicholas Aebischer, G&WCT’s deputy director of research, was reported as saying: “The original targets for the grey partridge were set before we were appointed lead partner for the grey partridge BAP. However, we were pleased to be part of the recent consultation process and see these new targets as much more realistic and achievable.” Positive land management was proclaimed as the key to stabilisation and recovery, with farmers and landowners creating new nesting and brood-rearing habitats, increasing food supplies and protecting the birds from predators.

To boost partridge recovery across the country, the G&WCT urged farmers and landowners to join its Partridge Count Scheme. This involves a few hours twice a year counting greys on farmland. In return, the G&WCT offers advice on habitat and other management techniques and disseminates practical information through regional Grey Partridge Recovery Groups (GPRGs) to reverse the decline. “We know how to do it: we have done the research and we know that it works,” says Peter Thompson, the G&WCT’s conservation officer. He is referring to the G&WCT’s Grey Partridge Recovery Project at Royston where numbers have soared from 20 pairs to 184 pairs in four years.

So far, so good. But this January the BTO’s David Noble told me a familiar story: “The grey partridge continues to decline – 37 per cent on the Breeding Bird Survey over the past 12 years.” The Joint Nature Conservation Committee uses BTO statistics when advising the government, and the BTO’s official (and strictly impartial) line on the grey partridge is that local extinctions are now likely to be widespread, although masked in some areas by continuing releases of hand-reared birds on to shooting estates. The BTO believes the practice of releasing redlegs in large numbers can lead to grey partridge extinction partly because shooters are unable to distinguish the two species. Citing G&WCT research published in 2007, it reports its authors’ conclusion that overshooting has greater implications for grey partridge conservation than raptor predation.

Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB’s head of conservation, says: “It was a very interesting study. All credit to the G&WCT for publishing it; it’s an uncomfortable find. It says that people think they are shooting one species which isn’t a threatened one, but too often they are shooting another one in numbers that are big enough to actually prevent the species from increasing.”

Alarm bells are ringing again. These findings exemplify the paradox that shooting and conservation go hand in hand. Avery says, “Some shots would say that the habitat management that goes alongside shooting is one of the reasons we’ve still got grey partridges in some parts of the country. And I think that is generally true.” Those he censures shoot grey partridges on their land without providing the right habitat for the bird’s recovery. He points out that these people are shooting the partridges someone else has worked so hard to produce. He wholeheartedly endorses the G&WCT’s counting scheme and says, “We need the government to put more money into agri-environment schemes so that farmers can do more right for wildlife in general. That will help the grey partridge as well. There aren’t enough Stewardship Schemes.”

However, at the highest level of the shooting community there are murmurings about the future. In East Anglia, long considered a grey stronghold, one landowner confesses, “I don’t want the shooting to stop but we are letting the grey partridge down.” The genesis of the anxiety is the combined effect of an exceptionally poor breeding season and the loss of set-aside. Misidentification is again raised as an issue, with corporate shooters named as the principal culprits. Also, for farmers who sold their grain forward and therefore are yet to benefit from rising prices, there is the temptation to sell shooting on land never previously shot. In some areas such ventures could result in the disappearance of isolated pockets of birds, which spells conservation disaster.

Wild partridges disappeared from Ireland’s quarry list in 1995. Numbers dwindled after that, and now the Irish Grey Partridge Conservation Trust can muster a mere 200 birds. Reared grey partridges may be released under licence and shot, but it is accepted that there will be no conservation gain or loss to the species as a whole. The resulting confusion for shots is, a spokesman tells me, “Terrible… normally, if it’s a grey, we don’t shoot it”. Shooting organisations rely on the Irish experience as proof positive that UK shooting will continue. Others may view it differently. “If the voluntary measures put in place by the shooting community to keep numbers up are not working,” says Avery, “eventually the grey partridge will need to be given more protection.”

At this point the alarm bells are deafening. Consider what would happen if target numbers required tweaking for a second time and DEFRA was minded to ignore the countryside and the G&WCT and amend the Game Acts. It could either curtail the partridge season or remove the grey partridge from the quarry list. With misidentification already flagged as a danger, redleg-shooting could collapse on the back of such a move. And while redleg-shooting represents the profit margin on many a commercial pheasant-shoot, what price pheasant-shooting?

Dr Nick Sotherton, the G&WCT’s director of research, says, “The rural community is useless at putting over its point of view. The G&WCT realises it has to explain the paradox that you conserve this bird by shooting it. It’s not a popular conception, so we need to go to the government and say, ‘Here’s the data, here’s the proof, hence the counting scheme.’ Thompson sings from the same hymn sheet. “Some shooting people are supporting the scheme,” he says, “but nothing like enough. I want to galvanise them into action.” Sotherton urges: “This scheme is vital. If you’ve got grey partridges, and they’re doing well because you are investing time and management in them, let us know. Then we can convince the government that, as a result of the landowning community’s efforts, this once-threatened species has now turned the corner and is on the up. Without that information we are stuffed.”

We have nothing to fear from the truth. As the legend on a mediaeval Lincolnshire church clock has it, “Watch and pray, for ye know not when the time is.” For the grey partridge, time is running out.

Sign up to help the greys by calling the Partridge Count Scheme co-ordinator on 01425 652381.