After spending all day yesterday in pursuit of red legged partridges at the Northern School of Game and Wildlife near Penrith, I have a new respect for these birds. Driven from game crops and coppiced willow, the little meteors came zooming out at around head height before flaring steeply up over the guns to provide some fantastic shooting. I’m used to shooting pheasants which have the handy trick of clattering through the vegetation with noisy wingbeats so that you can make ready for their arrival, but the way the partridges buzzed quietly into the air meant that several caught me totally unawares and had passed by before I could even get my shotgun up to my shoulder.
One drive in particular sent birds buzzing out of the sun over a crackling stubble field, and I had some of the most exciting shooting I can remember as they flared up overhead. A few pheasants were mixed in with partridges to add some exciting variety, but the main lesson I took from the day is that farmland and game shooting go hand in hand. Cover crops, hedgerows and little spinneys crisscross the property at Newtonrigg, and the general impression is one of land being used. Hardly a square foot of the place was lying idle or wasted, and as a result, birds and wildlife were present in abundance. Not only that, but seeing the planning and care that had gone into the layout of the place indicates a level of pride and responsibility that you just don’t see all that often in the modern British countryside. In general, farmers seem more interested in maximising their productivity at the cost of aesthetics and nature, so to see what is clearly a working farm in a position to provide habitats for everything from hares to sparrowhawks was a welcome experience.
We ended the day with thirty three brace of partridges in the bag, and I drove north over the border with my head full of new ideas for the Chayne. The Southern Uplands are certainly very different from the rolling countryside of east Cumbria, but the importance of working land can hardly be underestimated. If anything, the hills are a harder environment to conserve because they punish neglect extremely harshly. In ten years, open pasture becomes a sea of rushes. In a similar time frame, good arable land becomes waterlogged and useless. If I can take just one thing from my day’s shooting in Cumbria, it’s that the very nature of turning the soil and using the land is good for birds and wildlife, and that if I hope to have a shoot on the Chayne, I also need to have an operational farm.
Checking on my own partridges this morning, I couldn’t help planning cover crops and hedgerows where now there is nothing but blow grass and rushes. I need to get some diversity up on the hill, and break up the sad monoculture of useless vegetation. I’m still keen on the idea of putting down grey partridges on the Chayne, but until I can get the ground turned and the uniformity of neglect broken up, I’ll just have to wait.