The past week has given me a fascinating opportunity to follow the progress of my released partridges. Many have wandered far and wide across the farm, while a dedicated hard core of birds has stayed around the pen, feeding and communing with the handful still left inside. It has been a real pleasure to take care of partridges this year, but it has always been part of a bigger picture. While I’ve got no problem with breeding and releasing gamebirds artificially, my goal for the Chayne has always been to produce a sufficient number of wild birds to shoot using only good habitat management, winter feeding and predator control. I’m coming to terms with the fact that if I want certain native wild bird species on the farm, I’ll need to rear and release some, but this will be to establish a wild population rather than to look for a quick turnaround in which released birds are shot within months.
With a view to doing some work on grey partridges, which have been absent from the Chayne for twenty years, the red legs were something of a dry run. I expected predators to raid them, and I knew that a large percentage of my birds would vanish. I hoped that the experience would teach me some basic lessons about partridge keeping before I embarked on the difficult and time consuming job of reintroducing greys, and while I did my best to look after my birds, they were always going to be the crash test dummies.
A fox (an impossibly sly brute) waited for a month after the arrival of the partridges before stealing three escapees one night and eating one just six feet away from the pen. He left a trail of feathers along a number of different runs as he left, and although I snared them all, he never came back. A sparrowhawk killed two partridges outside the pen and scattered their feathers across the top net. I know it was a sparrowhawk because I watched him do it, but I took it all in relatively good spirits. Reared gamebirds are notoriously stupid, and keeping them in a concentrated area for any length of time is just asking for trouble.
I hadn’t realised how much trouble I had asked for. This morning I disturbed a female goshawk from her kill; one of my partridges which she had totally demolished. She flew away with part of the carcass, leaving only the top beak and a mound of feathers. I knew that there were goshawks in the vicinity, but I had always hoped that they would stay away. Goshawks are terrifying birds, and black grouse are their favourite prey. Having seen them hammer blue hares in the Scottish Borders last year, I know how deadly these birds can be, and the fact that they happily snap up everything from barn owls to red squirrels makes them nature’s answer to a wrecking ball.
Goshawks were made extinct in Britain in the nineteenth century by gamekeepers and egg collectors, but the bird(s) on the Chayne have arrived thanks to human intervention: birds have been released nearby and a small population is now present in the county. These releases are absolutely typical of the modern raptor conservationist’s approach to fixing a problem. By releasing goshawks into Dumfries and Galloway, they reintroduce a keen and capable predator to a region that is home to some of the country’s rarest birds. Rather than taking the time to rebuild our damaged ecosystem from the bottom, making sure that a diverse variety of healthy native prey species are available for these predators to feed upon, they dump their favourite bird on the top of our broken countryside without a second thought.
I love black grouse more than most people, but I am not so naive as to think that they are indestructable. Black grouse are somewhere towards the bottom of the food chain, and I undertsand that other animals need to kill and eat them in order to survive. What I object to is the careless reintroduction of a bird which could well be a major limiting factor for black grouse recovery in Galloway. It was inevitable that a goshawk should have taken one of my daft red legged partridges, but could this mean that the dampeners will be put on my future attempts to reintroduce wild greys?
You can build a foodchain from the bottom up, but you can’t do it from the top down. The fact that some raptor conservationists got carried away with the idea of releasing goshawks could mean that we now have a dysfunctional foodchain which inhibits attempts to promote the conservation of biodiversity. There’s no doubt that goshawks belong in Galloway, but is now really the right time to be putting them back?