Farming feature: Soaring success of efforts to help boost numbers of threatened UK game bird in East Anglia
PUBLISHED: 08:01 15 September 2019 | UPDATED: 11:13 16 September 2019
A farm conservation group which promotes the benefits of encouraging a threatened UK game bird says efforts by East Anglian farmers and landowners are having an impact on their numbers.
Part-time gamekeeper Adam Steed said he was "absolutely thrilled" after scooping a Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) regional award for his conservation efforts, which have seen numbers of grey partridges soar at the Stowmarket farm where he operates.
He picked up his East Anglian Grey Partridge Conservation award at the GWCT's annual farm walk, which is traditionally hosted by the previous year's trophy winner.
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The trust promotes grey partridge populations, which it sees as a useful barometer of the environmental health of farms - and it says numbers in the region are on the up.
Farlingaye High PE teacher Adam, who organises shoots at Red House Farm, Bacton, in his spare time, also carries out a significant amount of work to encourage wildlife.
The farm where he operates is owned by pig farmers the Black family, of David Black & Son, the company behind Bacton Pigs.
2018 winner Sir Kenneth Carlisle, of Wyken Hall Estate, near Bury St Edmunds, took farmers and farm professionals at the event on a tour of his 1,100 acre farm, accompanied by Dr Roger Draycott, head of advisory services at the GWCT, and Hugo Johnsen, director of sponsors Castleacre Insurance.
Sir Kenneth's estate is contract farmed by Will Reed of Pakenham, who talked farmers through some of the successes and challenges of the conservation work carried out on the farm.
The landowner showed how conservation measures including beetle banks, hedgerows and woodland, ensured that the estate was attracting grey partridges in ever greater numbers.
"Seven or eight years ago we dropped to about three pairs, then we started doing the Countryside Stewardship which provides the habitat," explained Sir Kenneth.
"We have a number of options which helped to provide the habitat so two years ago, we got up to 12 pairs and last year we got up to 15 pairs and this spring we go up to 27 pairs.
"The grey partridge has a great capacity to expand rapidly because they lay lots of eggs.
"We are very pleased, although we are still all learning a lot about how to provide the best habitat."
Grey partridge habitat is also good for other birds like yellowhammers, skylarks and linnets, he said, and all of these species were seeing population growth on the farm, helped by more neighbouring farms adopting 6m bird and bee-friendly margins to encourage wildlife.
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Dr Draycott said Sir Kenneth was a "very well deserved winner" last year, and a very dedicated bird counter for grey partridge. "He's been undertaking conservation measures for grey partridges for a long time now," he said.
"As we all know, when grey partridge is increasing, that other farm life is increasing too. Grey partridge is a very good barometer of the farmed environment."
In future, farm payments would be geared towards conservation measures such as those introduced to encourage grey partridges, which meant landowners' efforts were worthwhile, he said.
"Farmers are going to have to demonstrate the benefits they are providing to society, so what better way than counting the number of grey partridges and showing how much they have increased?
"We know how much other wildlife has increased where grey partridges have.
"In the eastern region, the number of breeding pairs has increased from four pairs to every 100ha to nine pairs to every 100ha."
The GWCT was now focusing on overwintering of the birds, as there has been a decline, he said, possibly due to less oilseed rape crop being grown, or it establishing less successfully due to a European Union-wide ban on neonicotinoid insecticide.
Bacton Pigs boss James Black said Adam was "absolutely dedicated" and did a lot of work on a voluntary basis. "Over the years we have planted a number of hedgerows and he's always keen that we make the most out of the habitat that we are creating."
Adam, who has been gamekeeping at Bacton for the last 10 years or so, said he had enjoyed making a "positive contribution".
"When harvest comes and you start seeing these rare birds doing well and it's a product of the work you have put in, it's very rewarding," he said.
"I'm absolutely thrilled. It's a very coveted award."