Habitat, habitat, habitat. That is the key to a thriving wild grey partridge population, says Kevan McCaig. His challenge has been to provide it on intensively farmed land while creating a wild partridge shoot at Alnwick, Northumberland.
Kevan, who is from a farming family, started his gamekeeping career at 16 and has worked as an underkeeper on Scottish estates, where his responsibilities included rearing pheasants and French partridge, and roe deer stalking.
He joined Northumberland Estates, which owns 120,000 acres in the county, four years ago. Kevan started work there in the Hulne Park area, which has a pheasant shoot and an adjoining small grouse moor, employing three gamekeepers, a stalker and a student. A year later he was offered the chance to develop a wild grey partridge shoot on a different part of the estate.
It had always been Kevan’s ambition to work on a wild game shoot, but this job was to develop one on 350 acres that had been intensively farmed for the past 30 years. What’s more, although he reported to the estate’s head keeper, Gary Whitfield, the shoot’s success or failure would rest on Kevan’s efforts alone.
“I put my neck on the line,” admits Kevan, “but the Duke [of Northumberland] wanted to do something for the greys and has the resources to put into it.”
The initial aim was the conservation of the grey partridge, but the added incentive was to provide a shootable surplus of 50 brace for the Duke’s 50th birthday in 2006.
The way the land was farmed could not be changed – in-hand land is farmed by Velcourt – and there are seven or eight tenant farms across the shoot. It has not been easy to accommodate the game crops and brood cover into farm plans, and compromises have had to be made.
“It was a bitter battle for the first two years,” says Kevan.
But things are getting easier as the grey partridge have flourished and people are taking an interest in the birds that are the reason for it all.
Tenants have been paid rent or taken shooting in return for 6m strips and most of the fields have margins left now. There are also 12m headlands and in some places 26m strips.
A map of the shoot now shows a veritable patchwork of yellow highlighter, marking the strips that have been put in – more than 220 acres in all.
“It has been trial and error to see which mixes work here,” says Kevin.
He put out about 400 feed hoppers – “I see them in my sleep” – each one filled with wheat and surrounded with pig netting, which allows the partridge to feed, but keeps the crows off.
The shoot is narrow and about four miles long, with unkeepered ground to one side.
“We get a constant flow of vermin from that side,” says Kevan, who has set up a network of Larsen and tunnel traps.
“I put up NGO stickers to explain what the traps are for where they can be seen by the public.”
Walkers, riders and cyclists had been roaming more or less where they wanted for years. Kevan has requested they stick to paths and bridleways and keep dogs on leads. This has helped the partridge and other birds to nest undisturbed.
“I created a circular route with extra stiles to keep people happy,” he says.
Kevan does spring pair counts and summer brood counts (broods averaged eight chicks last year) and greys have increased from 16 pairs at the start of the project to 200 pairs now.
He does some small-scale fostering to counteract natural losses.
“I pick up early clutches of eggs and set them under bantams – the parent birds will lay again. At five to six weeks old I put the chicks, which are all leg-ringed, out to barren pairs, who will take them on if they are released in the right place. I did 100 last year.”
Holidays with his wife Dawn has become a thing of the past, as Kevan has put all his efforts into the shoot.
“He is 110% dedicated, I couldn’t ask for more,” says Gary Whitfield.
It is showing results. Last year he received an award on behalf of Northumberland Estates for doing the most to aid recovery of the grey partridge in the area and improved habitat has paid dividends for wildlife. Songbirds have increased and lapwings, owls and woodpeckers abound. Some wild pheasant days are now let on the shoot, but only to trusted guns.
And the Duke got his birthday present – even if it was touch-and-go at first.
“The first shoot day was wet and wild and the first drive was a disaster, but after that it went well,” recalls Kevan, adding that the Duke and his family are great shots.
“Nothing is hit hard in one area and over three days of great sport his party had 316 partridge.
“I’d like to stick with working with wild birds now – it wouldn’t be the same going back to reared.”
Kevan McCaig started gamekeeping at 16 and now works on the Duke of Northumberland’s estate, where he developed a wild grey partridge shoot.