Back from brink: Why grey partridge numbers are soaring once again

Partridge family: Numbers here have risen from 21 to 800-plus. Photo: Damien Eagers Photography
Partridge family: Numbers here have risen from 21 to 800-plus. Photo: Damien Eagers Photography

Caroline O'Doherty

Ireland's own partridge family is celebrating a new release that could make the record books.

But the revival of this ensemble from near obscurity is down to a fan base of conservationists and farmers. The grey partridge once thrived in the Irish countryside but numbers plummeted to only 21 birds in 2001 and its extinction seemed inevitable.

A captive breeding and habitat protection programme run by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) has now turned its fortunes around and the release of another covey this week has brought the numbers in the wild up to more than 800.

A covey is a family group of up to 20 individuals as this convivial little bird sticks with its parents, siblings and unpaired aunts and uncles for a year after hatching. But safety in numbers could not protect the ground-nesting reluctant flyer from the challenges of a dramatically changing landscape.

NPWS regional manager Padraig O'Donnell, who oversees the conservation project in Boora, Co Offaly, explained how numbers fell so low. "They suffered from loss of habitat and scarcity of insects because of changes in farming practice," he said.

The chicks need to eat spiders and insects for a couple of weeks after hatching before they switch to greens and seeds.

"They're also preyed on by hooded crows, magpies and foxes. They actually fly well but they prefer to be on the ground so they're vulnerable."

Co-operation from local farmers and the regional game council has enabled the NPWS to restore favourable habitats and boost insect numbers and, although Boora is currently the only area in the country to have grey partridges, there are hopes of replicating the project's success in north Co Dublin and Co Donegal.

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Culture and Heritage Minister Josepha Madigan, who released this week's group, praised the "amazing work" of the NPWS and farming community.

It is a rare good news story for conservation in Ireland where the curlew and corncrake are critically endangered and the latest six-yearly reports on the country's protected habitats reveal 85pc of them are in inadequate or bad condition through intensive farming and pollution.

Irish Independent

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