The decline of farmland biodiversity is a bit of a sorry subject- a stream of headlines regarding species' declines may be accurate but they do not make for cheerful reading. It matters not whether you’re a farmer, a conservationist or just someone that likes a quick stroll through the countryside at the weekend- the decline of some of our best loved species is obvious, and depressing.
There are successes and reasons to be hopeful- the Cirl Bunting Project is going well, the work of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust continues, the RSPB’s aptly named Hope Farm reaps rewards on many fronts and the positive and cooperative attitudes of many farmers are just some of the little rays of sunshine in an otherwise cloudy sky. But they can all seem a long way away when you reach the end of the summer and realise you hardly heard the Skylark.
In terms of the bird species on our small farm there are lots that have dwindled and some that have disappeared but there are positives too. We must not become in any way complacent but equally we must celebrate our successes. So far in 2011: the hard winter brought Snipe to the boggy patches and open ditches in good numbers, a Cuckoo was heard this spring, Reed Buntings bred here for the first time, Tree Sparrows returned, Goldfinch and Willow Tit numbers continued to climb, and a Wood Warbler visited us as it headed Southwards this Autumn.
All of these are small triumphs- but for me the best wildlife news so far in 2011 came last weekend- less than a mile from the farm someone reported seeing a Grey Partridge. I have to admit at first I was sceptical we have Red-Legged Partridges, and Pheasants by the dozen but sadly I haven’t seen a Grey Partridge on the farm for over a decade.
Here today, gone tomorrow...
The decline of our Grey Partridges was shockingly rapid. Fifteen years ago we had a regular covey of between 8 and 12 birds that wintered with us on the farm then dispersed each summer, but five years later they were gone. They didn’t really dwindle they just disappeared never to be seen again. The problem didn’t just affect our farm; unknowingly we must have had some of the last- they disappeared from our countryside as a whole.
The call of a Grey Partridge is for me an evocative sound- admittedly we’re not talking song of the Nightingale, more a raspy cry, but it takes me back. The birds themselves may not be the showiest or the most colourful but there is great beauty in their subtle hues, and they are delightful in their modest and unassuming habits.
Thankfully the individual who spotted this bird was a birder and a photographer who managed to spot and snap the bird. The partridge was a youngster somewhere in the middle of the messy moult to adulthood. A couple of other people managed to see it when it occasionally emerged from the fog and long grass. Who just fifteen years ago would have thought a partridge would have caused such a fuss.
Here today, back tomorrow?
I admit I am getting a bit carried away. One adolescent partridge seen a half a mile from the farm might not herald the triumphant return of a lost species. Sitting where they do in the food chain and with winter approaching, for this particular little bird Spring 2012 is a long time and a lot of luck away.
That said, I’m sure you can understand my excitement, after a complete absence a single bird IS a return of sorts. It’s also true to say that compared to this time last year Grey Partridge numbers in this neck of the woods have increased by...well, it doesn’t even work as a percentage. Mathematically speaking they have arrived.
There’s also comfort in the fact that Grey Partridges don’t typically travel far from their natal grounds- so this young bird means that someone, is doing something right, somewhere not too far away.
We may well not see another Grey Partridge around here for another 10 years. In many cases the return of farmland bird species can never be as fast as their decline, but when the day comes that there are partridges scratching in our fields and hedgerows again (and that day will come) it’ll be like they never went away.
- For more information about the Grey Partridge, it's decline and how to manage land to aid it's recovery see here.