Things went very quiet on the grey partridge front on the day that we shot the game cover. Three hen pheasants rose up out of the radishes, and the subsequent outburst of shooting put all of the partridges up in a single covey. None of the pheasants came down, but we were all so distracted by their appearance that the four grey shapes flew straight through the line at about head height and hardly anyone noticed. They were all that remained of my modest attempt to put down partridges on the Chayne, and with that they were gone. That was on Saturday the 24th November.
Within a few days, it became obvious that they weren’t coming back. I heard that the neighbouring keeper had seen a single grey partridge about three miles away from the pen, so I came to the conclusion that they must have broken up and dispersed into the hills, never to be seen again. I wasn’t that disappointed. After all, I had only put down sixteen birds and had kept back nine of them to breed for next year. It was obviously never going to be a “one stop” process to reintroduce grey partridges, and this first year was billed as a small practice run. When they disappeared, I felt glad that I had learnt as much as I had and considered the fact that I had kept them in one place for almost three months to be a bit of a triumph. I concentrated on looking after my breeding stock and distracted myself with the million and one other projects which need to be worked on before spring comes back again.
Walking around the back of the game crop today, I found a very fresh run through the rushes. It seemed like a great spot for a fox, but before I went home for a snare, I checked up and down the length of the line and realised that it was actually made by an otter. I’m a bit of an otter fan, and I’m always a bit disappointed by how little I see of them on the Chayne. I have only ever seen one and that was in the lamplight. A fresh fall of snow reveals otter tracks along the burnsides, and March is always a month of mangled frogs, but my breed of “hill otter” is elusive to the point of being almost rude.
Once I realised what I was looking at, I saw that the diversion had taken me a little bit further over than I would normally go, so I set off back to the car through the wet rushes cursing that I wasn’t wearing my waterproof trousers. As I came into the game crop, I saw a familiar shape beneath one of the feeders. It was a grey partridge, but it did not like the look of me. Immediately, it ran off through the radishes and a second figure took off after it, dodging through the woody stems and heading for a thick patch of turnips. A cock and a hen, but where have they been for the past seven weeks? When I last saw them, there were three hens and a cock – does this mean that a pair has emerged and the two spare hens have gone off in search of their own men? Perhaps it’s been so mild that they have paired already? It raises so many more questions than it answers, but I’m just pleased that they are still around. It’s extremely unlikely that these two will breed and bring off chicks, but I can’t resist crossing my fingers.
Judging by their behaviour, they’ve certainly become wild enough to survive during their seven week vanishing act. They used to be quite tame, but when they saw me today it was as if I was their worst nightmare. That keen eyed desire to escape predators will serve them well in the next few months.