Covey boost for partridge family

A CONSERVATION milestone was reached last week; two coveys of partridges, raised in captivity at Boora Bog in County Offaly, were released at a secret location in north county Dublin.

Others will join them over the next few weeks, bringing the total to 72 birds.

A few years ago, the partridge was at death’s door in Ireland. Now, thanks to the hard work and ingenuity of the Irish Partridge Conservation Trust, this little game-bird’s future is brighter.

Partridges were once so common that two million of them were shot in Britain each year without depleting the population. The bird bred in every Irish county. Then numbers began to fall.

Declining predator control, following the break-up of the great estates and changes in farming practices, were the likely culprits. Re-stocking helped slow the haemorrhage, but by 2002 only 22 Irish birds remained, all at Boora.

The trust set aside an area there and began managing it for the birds. Stands of traditional grassland were created and predators kept at bay. Eggs can be collected and hatched under bantam hens, but it was decided not to go down that road. According to Kieran Buckley, of the trust, youngsters raised by partridge parents do better than those raised by surrogates. Chicks need to be ‘educated’.

Partridges compete aggressively for mates. Females take the initiative in partner selection and, by using a captured male as a decoy, they can be caught. The hens in turn attract more males. Birds taken into custody at Boora are paired off and induced to nest in pens. The chicks from these unions receive a relatively normal partridge education. When birds of prey, for example, appear over the pens, the adults hide and freeze, a behaviour copied by the chicks. ‘When the old cock crows the young cock learns.’ Parents don’t offer food directly to the offspring. They seek out suitable locations and items, allowing the youngsters to feed themselves.

There were, however, so few birds left at Boora that more drastic measures were needed. Feathers collected from partridges all over Europe were subjected to DNA profiling. Surprisingly, the best matches for Irish birds were from Estonia. The partridge population there is healthy, allowing reinforcements to be recruited for Ireland. Twenty-two Estonian birds arrived at Boora in 2002. The newcomers were paired to locals in the pens so that Irish genes, piggy-backing on the foreign ones, would be transmitted to the young.

Partridges are extraordinarily prolific breeders; they produce the largest clutches of any bird in the world. A pair at Boora produced 27, of which 25 hatched. The authoritative Birds of the Western Palearctic gives a maximum clutch size of 29 but includes the following caveat: (it is) ‘often stated that clutches of circa 24 or more (are) from two females but this certainly (is) not always so’.

According to Buckley, the large clutch at Boora was definitely produced by one female.

Thirty-two birds, a third of the population at Boora, took part in the captive breeding programme this summer. Partridges form strong family ties.

Coveys consist of parents and their young, but failed breeders and maiden aunties may also be included. Families stay together throughout the winter, which is why entire coveys rather than randomly mixed birds are being released in Dublin.

The chicks’ primary education took place in the pens. Their secondary schooling is under way on the fields of Fingal. Farmers Pat Rooney, Padraig McMahon and Laurence Ward have set aside strips of land and planted field margins with cereals and flax. These, and the nesting cover close to old ditches, are ideal habitat for the new arrivals. Traps are set to control predators such as rats and mink.

In a glowing report on the Boora work, British partridge expert Nick Sotherton said: “the GWCT faced similar problems in Britain but has not addressed them as well as the Irish.”

This remarkable project is supported by Fingal County Council, the Heritage Council and the NARGC.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service imported the Estonian birds.

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