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Going grey to benefit Scotland’s biodiversity

AN innovative new project which aims to demonstrate how best practice grey partridge management can benefit biodiversity as part of a commercial agricultural operation was launched today by conservation body Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT). Whitburgh Farms at Pathhead in Midlothian and the conservation charity have joined forces to manage farmland to benefit this iconic farmland species and in doing so establish and develop the next generation of agri-environment prescriptions for Scotland. This is the first project of its kind north of the Border and the partners hope it will highlight ways to use agri-environment support to reinvigorate the grey partridge population which has declined UK-wide by 91% (1967- 2009). The partners were delighted that Dr Bob McIntosh, Director of Environment and Forestry, Scottish Government officially launched the project, underlining its relevance to public policy.

Dr McIntosh said: "This is a very exciting project. It has the potential to reverse the decline in grey partridges and to show the way to bring back this species to farmland Scotland.  The abundance of farmland birds in Scotland has increased by on average 25% since the mid 1990s. Building on this success, including measures to benefit key farmland species, will be one of our priorities when considering our position on the design of the new CAP agri-environment measures."

The species has become symbolic of the struggle facing many of Scotland’s ground nesting birds. Its decline is a particular matter of concern as the grey partridge is an umbrella species: where grey partridge are actively managed, many important arable landscape features such as pollen and seed-rich habitat, songbirds and insects are also likely to benefit. The causes of this decline have been well researched by the GWCT. It is known that an important factor is a loss of bugs and other insects on farms which chicks need for food after they hatch in June. At other times of the year predation of adult birds and nests and winter food availability place significant additional pressure on populations.

 However GWCT research has shown that partridge management measures can be introduced and drive an increase in spring numbers from as low as 2.9 pairs per 100 hectares at the start to over 18 pairs per 100ha. “Assessing whether these same factors are important for Scottish greys and the effectiveness of management prescriptions is vital if the species is to thrive in a future intensively managed farmland,” said Dr Adam Smith, Director Scotland, GWCT.

 “The results of the Scottish Grey Partridge Project will build on our successful Partridge Group scheme run in East Lothian by informing and improving farming practice, increasing public knowledge and potentially influencing policy.”

 In order to achieve this key aspects of the project are:

  • Demonstrating and encouraging best practice management of Scottish farmland for Grey Partridges
  • Showing public benefits of combined game conservation and productive agriculture, notably how these activities support farmland biodiversity
  • Testing ‘multi-purpose’ proposals for habitat, disease control and predator control options for Grey Partridges in future Scottish agri-environment schemes
  • Highlighting whether adaptive management is required to address predation pressure on grey partridges by Badger, Sparrowhawk and Buzzard and grazing by Brown Hare.

Alastair Salvesen, farm owner and project sponsor said:

“ I have been interested in wildlife for many years and am very pleased that GWCT is running this research project at Whitburgh, where a keeper is employed. In my view it is important to determine why the numbers of grey partridges, farmland birds and brown hares have reduced over the last 50 years and I expect that this research will determine how intensive farming methods, including block cropping and crop rotation, predation and disturbance are each responsible and whether this decline can be reversed without a significant loss of farm productivity. Could or should these methods be adopted widely to encourage Biodiversity?”

Caption – The Grey Partridge - an indicator species in decline.

Project overview

 Whitburgh

 • Economically active arable farm demonstrating best practice partridge management

 • Biodiversity improvements will be monitored and recorded

 • Project will suggest important agri-environment prescriptions compatible and enhancing of commercial farming.

 The GWCT started working with Alastair Salvesen at Whitburgh Farms in Mid-Lothian in 2011. This pilot provided ‘baseline’ information regarding the circumstances at the very start of the project.

  1.  Much of the ground is already sympathetically managed with impressive headlands round most fields, for example, consisting of grass and unharvested crop strips, and a stringent predator control program across the board.
  2. Importantly part of the ground is yet to undergo this transformation and is still currently farmed intensively.  The project will use this intensive ground to illustrate the changes that occur after Partridge management begins.
  3. We will be able to demonstrate how the hens and chicks use the arable habitats in the summer and with this information to develop improvements to farming prescriptions . This will allow the GWCT to establish and develop sufficient agri-environment prescriptions for Scotland, within a commercially competitive agricultural system.

Data collection in 2011 consisted of information on partridge, pheasant and songbird populations, along with indications of fox and raptor activity on the site and invertebrate abundance. This year and into the future, we will continue and expand the monitoring so that we can record any change in Partridge numbers and understand what might be causing it.

During 2012 the Trust has begun radio-tracking hens to investigate their habitat use and mortality rates. This information will be able to demonstrate how hens and chicks use the headlands in the summer, with the view of developing prescriptions which would improve the biodiversity value of these areas.  The project will also reflect on how a declining species avoid the talons of the very healthy raptor population.

 

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