Being the first item in the well-known song has turned this shy bird into a festive celebrity. The carol, I am told, celebrates Catholic doctrines which it was forbidden to proclaim openly in fiercely Protestant England. The partridge in the tree represents Christ on the cross. As the great solstice holiday approaches, it’s worth reflecting on the plight of this neglected bird, the history of which in Ireland up to now has been so depressing. So what are its prospects for the future? Happily, thanks to work being done in Co Offaly, they are greatly improved.
Although few people see one nowadays, the partridge is a native Irish bird. It’s ancestors probably arrived here soon after the last Ice Age. The female resembles a tiny dumpy hen pheasant without the long tail. Males have lovely grey breasts, black bellies, dark brown side-stripes and orange faces. Gregarious birds, partridges live in extended family groups known as “coveys”. They have the distinction of producing the largest clutch of any bird – up to 29 eggs have been recorded. Some eastern European partridges migrate, but our birds don’t. Nor do birds visit us from abroad.
Irish partridges are not, however, all pure-blooded descendants of ancient colonisers. Aliens have contributed to the gene-pool.
This was once our commonest game bird but, 150 years ago, cereal farming declined and numbers began to fall. In 1900, Richard Ussher and Robert Warren noted that partridges “were said to be diminishing in Ireland”. From the 1930s onwards, foreign birds were imported to boost local stocks in some of the great estates. Robert Ruttledge, writing in 1966, thought the introductions helped, but they didn’t solve the problem. A national survey was carried out by Prof Brendan Kavanagh of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 1991. He found partridges in only seven of the 26 counties. By 2004, non-introduced birds survived at only one location, Boora Bog in Co Offaly. According to Kieran Buckley of the Irish Grey Partridge Conservation Trust about two dozen individuals remained there in 2002.
The National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS), which supported Brendan Kavanagh’s work during the 1990s, began a research and management project on a 258-hectare site at Boora, employing Kieran as conservation manager. Farmers with lands in a 1,500-hectare area around the site agreed to participate. The vegetation on the reserve was optimised for the birds. Beetle banks, refuges for the insects on which partridge chicks depend, were developed. Foxes, mink, hooded crows and other undesirables were banished.
But following two wet summers, partridge numbers fell so low that drastic measures were required. Birds would have to be brought in from abroad. The alternative would be extinction. Hand-raised birds might be easily obtained, but a programme such as this required wild ones. Immigrants would have to be as genetically close as possible to the natives, so DNA analyses were carried out on the partridges at Boora and French birds were found to match the Irish ones.
Paddy Kelly, a gamekeeper and an expert on captive breeding of wild partridge, came on board in 2002 and 20 birds arrived from France that year.
There were fears the newcomers might swamp the local population but in the end two-thirds of the immigrants were released into the wild. The others joined a captive breeding programme with Irish partners.
This was the first project of its kind to involve wild grey partridges. The risky strategy succeeded and thanks to the Boora work it is now possible to protect partridges during their breeding season while keeping their wild propensities intact.
In 2005, another 22 foreigners arrived, this time from Estonia where the partridges are also genetically close to Irish ones. Once again, the locals and foreigners integrated seamlessly. The project, so far, has been an outstanding success. A count last September yielded a total of 436 birds.
Congratulations to the NPWS, the Irish Grey Partridge Conservation Trust, the NARGC and the farmers of Boora.