Sunday book review – The Return of the Grey Partridge by Roger Morgan-Grenville and Edward Norfolk

This is the story of the recovery of Grey Partridge on the Duke of Norfolk’s land at Peppering on the South Downs (that’s Arundel Castle on the cover). It is a beautifully written tale (by Roger Morgan-Grenville) of a successful species recovery project based on the landowner’s enthusiasm for having a wild partridge shoot for his entertainment and that of his visitors.

In the interests of full transparency, I visited this area long ago at the invitation of Dick Potts in the period after he had left GWCT (then GCT) but before I left RSPB so that puts it in the period 2002-2011, and through a close reading of the text I think it must have been as long ago as 2005 – longer ago than I would have guessed. But I was back at Peppering at the invitation of the two authors about a month ago to see how things had gone. It’s quite fun being chauffeured around by an enthusiastic Duke (who organised the funeral of the late Queen) and who wanted to talk Grey Partridges all the time.  Also, a few days ago, I was present at a London  event to launch this book, even though it isn’t published until late February, which was full of gamekeepers, grouse moor owners, gun manufacturers and a few members of the Upper and Lower Chambers.

But what of the book? It’s a very good read and charts a remarkable rise in Grey Partridge numbers, secured through habitat improvement and intensive (though always legal, we are told (and I am inclined to believe it)) predator control. In 2003 there were 3 pairs of Grey Partridge counted in spring on the 800ha study area whereas from 2011 onwards every year has seen a count of 200-300 pairs. That’s impressive, more than impressive, it’s very impressive. Also impressive are the autumn counts, the counts that determine whether shooting will occur and on how many days, and they have increased from 11 birds in 2005 to over 1000 birds in 10 of the last 13 years and over 2000 birds in 3 of those 10 years.

The recovery in Grey Partridge numbers has been accomplished, unlike on nature reserves or most rewilding sites, alongside food production. Only some of the land has been dedicated to Grey Partridge production so the area is still, as a whole, producing lots of food.  But what is good for Grey Partridges is also good for many other birds, and the site is now rich in invertebrates and has an impressive list of plants largely dependent on arable farming of which it can boast.  This is a win-win-hardly lose anything scenario with game shooting and nature conservation both being winners and food production not being massively affected.

But let’s turn to the game shooting. The selling point (literally for visitors) of wild game (as opposed to reared and released gamebirds) is that they behave like wild birds – they are more difficult to shoot (cannier, you might say) and that difference is prized by those who shoot regularly and see the pastime as a test of shooting skill rather than simply a numbers game. Now as a non-shooter who will never turn into a shooter I can understand this at an intellectual level but not deep down in my bones. But read this book and you’ll get a better understanding of it than I could give you. The point is, though, that it is only because of one rich man’s desire to have a wild partridge shoot that the Grey Partridge is now two orders of magnitude more numerous on this land and that all that other wildlife has flourished. This land, under different ownership, could either have been farmed to death and the wildlife would largely have disappeared or gone to rear-and-released Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges with little of the habitat benefit that has accrued. The desire to kill birds with skillful shots is the major driver for all that has happened.

This book should be widely read by many people – people scattered across all factions of all views and all philosophies concerning land use, wildlife conservation, animal welfare and food production. Because it is so very well written, and engagingly open about the scale of money and predator control involved in this wildlife recovery, it will be an eye opener for many. I can imagine Peppering being used, but often misused, in all sorts of conversations into the future.

Once you’ve read it, and I really recommend that you do, I’d ask you to consider a list of 5 questions which I’ll set out below, but first, let me get a few much more minor points out of the way.

You can often read something of a book’s history by a careful reading of its pages, just as you can read a landscape by looking at the field sizes and hedgerows. This book has a pretty good index, but some of what is in the index is not in the book. It looks to me as though there was a rather late (ie post index completion) rewriting of the Foreword. That’s quite interesting.

There are some eccentricities and inelegancies in the book’s structure too. The early pages including His Grace’s Foreword have their pages in Roman numerals, as often they are, but this continues into the Prologue written by Morgan-Grenville which just looks a bit odd. Also looking a bit odd, is the fact that there is a list of tables, on page ix, which doesn’t tell you where you’ll find the tables which are actually on page xix (except it’s a map) and the rest are on pages 173-76 (except one of them is a graph). The tables, map and graph could all have done with more explanation on those pages and their existence isn’t referred to in the text, so you aren’t told something in words and then sent off to find the numbers elsewhere. There is also a list of illustrations occupying pages viii and ix but these are simply the captions for the photographs gathered together in the middle of the book – the list seems utterly superfluous to me. And the notes from the text are a bit random, in quite an endearing way, as are the works selected for the short bibliography where you’d struggle to know quite why some of them were included unless you already know what they say, which rather undermines their value as a bibliography. These are minor  points, but they will slightly puzzle future readers and they didn’t help this reader.

And so to Curlews. Morgan-Grenville is Chair of Curlew Action and Edward Norfolk owns a grouse moor in Yorkshire, West Arkengarthdale, which has nesting Curlew. Forty Curlew eggs made the journey south, this summer, for release on the South Downs, an area with very little evidence of previous breeding Curlew (the book admits) and none at all in living memory. One can only wish the project well, but I was asked by His Grace as he chauffeured me around, whether I thought it would work and I was non-committal. The more I think about it the more sceptical I am. And I’m pretty sure that Natural England would have been more reticent about issuing a licence to any other local farmer for a similar project, or even a local conservation organisation. I think those 40 eggs could have been taken to better reintroduction (introduction?) sites, or arguably better left in Yorkshire with provision for more sympathetic management of some of their nest sites (eg silage fields). This book could become a classic, it really could, but in 10 years’ time the Curlew chapter may look like an embarrassing mistake. It was brave to include it.  Interestingly, the start of the Grey Partridge recovery on this site was aided by a few pairs of Grey Partridges making the shorter journey from Sandringham to Peppering, so restocking played a part in the main story.

Having got those niggles, quite minor niggles, out of the way we are left with a very detailed, clear and engaging narrative about the recovery of a wild Grey Partridge shoot on the South Downs of Sussex. What should we take from this? I think it would be good for readers of this book to ask themselves the following questions.

How happy are you that there are loads more Grey Partridges running around this patch of the South Downs only because rich people now shoot lots more Grey Partridges here than they could before? My answer to the question is ‘pretty happy’. You could have made me happy by doing all the habitat work and some of the predator control work too but then not shooting any birds, but that would be very expensive  and that wasn’t the motivation of the land owner so I am ‘pretty happy’ with it.

How happy are you that there are loads more Grey Partridges running around this patch of the South Downs only because a large number of predators are bumped off each year?  My answer to that question is ‘slightly uneasily content – I wouldn’t say happy exactly’.  I have seen with my own eyes that there are lots of raptors using this site, and the data say the same thing and I take on trust the absence of illegal predator control  here.  If driven grouse moors were rich in raptors, like Peppering is, then we’d be in a different world. All those traps and snares aren’t a laudable aspect of land use, to my mind, but they are legal and landowners are perfectly entitled to use them at the moment (and the standards of traps etc are rising over time). If this were simply a species recovery project, rather than also a shoot recovery project, it would probably be possible to maintain the Grey Partridge numbers with all that habitat richness and less predator control (but probably not without any).  Part of the function of predator control is to make sure that birds that hatch are available to be shot at later, but again, if this owner weren’t able to shoot at them he’d be far less motivated to get their numbers up in the first place and it’s his land.

If this shoot operates successfully (by which I mean happy shooters) with raptors taking an estimated one third of the Grey Partridges before the shooting season why doesn’t everyone (and why don’t grouse moors?) do the same?  That’s not a question for me to answer but I might ask it of some people in the future. I expect the answer will be along the lines of ‘We can’t all spend that much money for so few days shooting’, and that a  rear-and-release enterprise is easier and not everyone cares a fig about shooting wild birds.

Isn’t this the way forward, producing wildlife and food on the same land, rather than rewilding?  The answer to that will be that it varies between sites. There are other sites where food production is a pretty poor option and only exists inefficiently because of public subsidy where rewilding is a very sensible option for the public good. Many of those sites are upland areas of low productivity or wetlands which could be doing a better job for us all in terms of flood defence, wildlife and carbon storage.

Is the Peppering study ecologically repeatable on other sites? The danger is that some in shooting will pretend that everywhere could be like Peppering or, much worse, pretend that they already are. The light soils make this a good Grey Partridge area and one whose plant richness can be quite spectacular if encouraged. You wouldn’t get the same response of Grey Partridges down the road from me on clay soils, which is why the GWCT project at Loddington is no Peppering and where even at the more successful RSPB Hope Farm the Grey Partridge numbers wouldn’t support much of a shoot. So Peppering can be a beacon of hope but not easily replicated. And then there is the question of money. The Duke of Norfolk might wish he were richer but he is a rich man and that’s why he has been able to do what has been done here. There has been quite a lot of your and my money invested as well, through grants, and I’m very glad that my taxes have helped this success. But it’s a bit like the financial model for Knepp (not a million miles away) where the biodiversity is partly paid for by visitors; glampers etc at Knepp, shooters keen on wild birds at Peppering. How many more wild Grey Partridge shoots could the South Downs support?  And how much public money could go in this direction. Those are things that need consideration.  And lest we get carried away with the Peppering story, for it to be significant in Grey Partridge UK population terms we need a lot more successful similar projects so the question of repeatability is very relevant.

I know this has been a long book review but we are approaching its end. I’ve written a lot because this is a very good book about a very successful conservation project. It’s good that the project has found such a talented story teller and that the story teller had such a good tale to relate.  The Peppering story deserves to be heard by many, and discussed by many too, so that the most can be made of it.

But one last thing; in a way, my late friend Dick Potts, is also an author of this tale. He is mentioned on many pages of this book in an entirely appropriate and affectionate way. I treasure the day I spent down at Peppering almost 20 years ago for the time I spent with him. He was the expert brains behind this project and a major factor (along with others, of course) in this success. It is perhaps fitting that this successful conservation story is a three-legged stool with Roger, Eddie and Dick as the legs.


The cover? The cover is by Claire Harrup and is very attractive – I’d give it 8/10, a few bugs in the vegetation would have got it 9/10.

The Return of the Grey Partridge: restoring nature on the South Downs by Roger Morgan-Grenville and Edward Norfolk is published by Profile books but they seem rather reticent about mentioning it on their website so here’s somewhere offering a pre-order option.


9 Replies to “Sunday book review – The Return of the Grey Partridge by Roger Morgan-Grenville and Edward Norfolk”

  1. Sounds a very interesting read, especially with your ancillary questions in mind. We used to do a great deal of our, unrelated to this, fieldwork near York on a farm where they were trying to do this on a heavier soil and I suspect much less money. I’m fairly sure that the keeper there who was an interesting guy killed Sparrowhawks. As a birding beginner between Harrogate and Knaresborough every field had Grey Partridges in and they were small fields. I last saw one there about 25 years ago, sad to loose such a charismatic bird. I will certainly buy this, thanks for bringing it to view.

  2. ‘you’d struggle to know quite why’

    It was a set book in a copy-editor/proof-reader exam that escaped into the wild without treatment

  3. Paul has named one but also add on Hedgehogs and Badgers to the list of species to be removed to keep these birds alive. That will help the Curlew as well but make sure no stock are wormed with the biggest killer, Ivermectin, sold in so many ways. The decline of waders in Britain can be seen from 1975 when this poison came on the market. Curlew stomachs before this date were full of Dung Beetle grubs now only found where stock are clean.

    1. Badgers enjoy hedgehogs and are responsible for hedgehog decline. Not a surprise that hedgehogs are reappearing in Badger cull areas. The Fenn trap is now illegal so the likelihood of them being caught is very small. In areas of no cull, badger numbers are very high. Their love of eggs threatens ground nesting birds and is well documented. Ivermectin is not helpful, but control badgers and it would not be so harmful.

      1. Fenn mk4 traps are still legal – their legality in use just depends on which species the operator has permitted the entrance big enough to admit, which is supposed to not be big enough to admit your “average” stoat. Maybe you are thinking of the fact that most keepers in England & Wales have moved onto the new generation of more powerful spring traps such as the DOC brand – as these are legal for stoats? I would hazard a guess (but who knows, as it is unregulated) that there will probably be as many spring traps targeting mammals in use in the UK right now as there ever has been at any time in history. It would be wrong IMO to think that hedgehogs are not still being killed (the numbers I wouldn’t like to guess at) in traps set for stoats, squirrels or rats by an incompetent or uncaring operator, or even some operations with that intent.

  4. Let us take at face value the situation described here, regards growing Grey Partridge numbers by killing only legal predator species in legal ways, and sorting out (investing in) the habitat. And having enough spare to shoot a few days (exactly how many birds killed per acre averages over 5 & 10 years would be interesting to know) is a model I am supportive of (except I object to snaring and call-birds used in corvid traps, and want both to be banned). But what % of “land used for game shooting” is done like this, and what proportion of game birds killed are from places like this? Tiny, tiny fractions I would say. Is Duke of Norfolk grouse moor managed to these principles I have to wonder, and if not then why not? This way is the only long term way forward that will allow game shooting to exist, but at the moment it is just a handful of “eccentric” big landowners that indulge it to great fanfare on some of their landholdings and not on others. Example, Duke of Northumberland has one grey partridge place a bit like this (honestly don’t accurately know what the keepers policy is on raptors), on one landholding and on other landholdings not far away he has several very large and quite ugly rear & release commercial operations. Is this partly just turning one place into a moneymaking load of shit in order to subsidise the other pristine showcase?

  5. I don’t get the chance to read much, I still work for a living and don’t have much spare time so I would like to thank you Mark for your book recommendations, I recently read Patrick Galbraith’s book “ In search of one last song “ I only bought it because of your and John Lewis Stempel’s recommendations so when I started to read your latest book review something clicked
    I thought I had heard of Arundel before, Galbraith mentions it in his book. I had to re-read the chapter on Grey Partridge again, very interesting. A large part of the chapter is based on the observations of Gerald Gray, former head keeper of William van Cutsem’s estate at Hilborough. A similar scheme is going on at this estate and its interesting to hear Geralds concerns. Gerald reckons that despite all the work being done on the estate the Grey’s would be wiped out within 2 years if red legs were released for shooting to bump up the bags.
    He then goes on to mention his frustrations that raptors like Goshawks are misunderstood and do far less damage than people think, 2 paragraphs later he mentions how much a problem Rats are! I don’t think you could make it up
    As you can imagine it was a surprise to me that people like Gerald, A fifth generation gamekeeper aren’t being listened too, modern shooter’s instead preferring to listen to the likes of a PR woman like Amanda Aderson, a very sad situation, only a couple of weeks ago 2 of Van Cutsem’s gamekeepers were in court charged with illegally taking a Goshawk although the charge was dropped
    I grew up near a country park, ancient woodland with farmland on either side. I used to love going out late afternoons early in the year to watch for Grey Partridge, they fascinated me, I used to wait till almost dusk for them to start calling and watch the males start squabbling. Most of the farmland closest to where I lived was sold off and opencast mined, it was at least 5 years before it was restored to anything like its original state, to my surprise a few Partridge had survived on the small amount of land available to them, these birds survived in low numbers for over 30 years despite the presence of Foxes, Buzzards, Sparrowhawks, Owls and Corvids. A falconry friend of mine who lived on the other side of the woods released 50 pheasants on his side to hunt with his Goshawk, within 12 months the Partridge had disappeared on my side of the woods, the Pheasants had appeared, a further 12 months later and I never heard the Partridge calling on any side of the woods again, the pheasants were definitely the final nail.
    Hope this new book is as good and revealing as Galbraith’s

  6. Stacks of interesting points !

    The biggest for me – and that includes Hope Farm & fellow travellers – is just how little habitat you have to provide for huge improvement in biodiversity. 5% in crop measures – wildflower margins, beatle banks – should be a compulsory for getting any other grant on arable.

    Well done making the point about the site type – I’m staggered by the complete lack of awareness of what the French call ‘Terroir’ amongst a large number of ecologist/conservationists – you can include every one (+the farmers) who have criticised Knepp.

    I’m also horrified by how NFU’s food security myth has taken hold in mainstream conservation. When I see it being raised as an issue over an 140 acre hill farm in Wales I despair.

    And similarly, how far too many people are treating rewilding and on farm conservation as competing religions rather than valuable parts of the big conservation tool kit (which of course includes ‘conventional’ nature reserves).

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