I like to think of myself as a “proper” birder. Like most dedicated bird watchers I made a contribution to the just published British Trust for Ornithology BTO Bird Atlas 2007-2011, the very latest in a long line of awe inspiring BTO publications. This is the culmination of four years of fieldwork whereby over 225 million birds of 578 species were recorded online.
The Bird Atlas 2007-11 - BTO Bird Atlas
There are seriously worrying statistics in this book, many related to declining farmland species which I mention frequently on this blog in an attempt to draw attention to their plight in the part of Lancashire I live. I make no apology for returning today to a couple of those species and a topic which concerns me greatly.
On Wednesday I discussed with a fellow birder whether he should enter into his notebook the 7 Grey Partridge he’d seen that morning. Knowing of both the serious local decline in Grey Partridge plus the fact that numerous partridges are now released for sport by the shooting fraternity, most if not all of the releases undocumented, I suggested he err on the side of caution. As recently as 2011 in the final year of the Atlas surveys, I was recording Grey Partridge, but I no longer do so locally as I believe that our native species is to all intents and purposes locally extinct.
Grey Partridge - Photo credit: Langham Birder / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
The BTO Atlas tells me there has been a 91% population decline of Grey Partridge in the UK between 1967-2010, during the Breeding Atlas of 1968-72 and the Breeding Atlas of 1988-91. “Local extinctions may be masked in some areas by the release of captive-bred birds onto shooting estates: about 100,000 captive-reared Grey Partridges are released in Britain each year”. The Atlas gives no figures on the number of captive-bred birds subsequently shot for sport; neither does it give any indication of how any surviving birds impact upon any truly wild Grey Partridge population. Given that the species is in any case a secretive and difficult species to study, any such investigation would by now be almost impossible to conduct.
The problem is further complicated by the release into the same environment of Red-legged Partridge, a picture I know only too well from local farms.
"As more farms diversify into shooting, the number of Red-legged Partridges released has increased and this is illustrated by the National Gamebag Census, where numbers shot quadrupled between 1990 and 2005 (Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust 2013). It is estimated that 6.5 million partridges (Grey and Red-legged) were released across the UK in 2004, and 2.6 million were shot. There has been little research on the impacts of released birds on native species, but there is some evidence that shooting operations based on large-scale releases of Red-legged Partridges could be implicated in local extinctions of Grey Partridges.” To my unscientific but daily birding eyes that last sentence would seem to be a gross understatement.
Turning to the non-native Pheasant, the Atlas tells me that the numbers of captive-bred Pheasants released into the wild has increased fivefold since the early 1960s to around 35 million birds annually. Some 15 million Pheasant are shot annually. “High densities of Pheasants potentially have negative effects on native species, but these have been poorly studied. Indirect effects possibly include modification of the structure of the field layer, the spread of disease and parasites and competition for food. Recent research indicates that infection with caecal nematodes from farm-reared Pheasants may be contributing to the decline of Grey Partridge.” When I watch hordes of young Pheasants thundering through late summer fields and woodland edge there is no doubt in my mind that their effect on the environment is wholly negative.
The entire picture is a sad and sorry one worthy of proper debate but the BTO cannot be seen to take sides in this matter.
“The BTO is an independent charitable research institute combining professional and citizen science aimed at using evidence of change in wildlife populations, particularly birds, to inform the public, opinion-formers and environmental policy and decision-makers. Our impartiality enables our data and information to be used both by Government and NGO campaigners. Our long-term monitoring data on the status of UK birds sets the standard worldwide for understanding the effects of environmental change on wildlife. Over 40,000 volunteer birdwatchers, in partnership with professional research scientists, collect high quality monitoring data on birds and other wildlife. The combination of professional ecologists, long-term datasets some in excess of 50 years, and volunteers participating all over the country gives the BTO a unique, impartial and knowledgeable voice in nature conservation.”
I’m left trying to think of an organisation that might be willing to take on the vested interests of landowners and the sporting fraternity in ending what is a national disgrace?
Browse sample pages and then buy a copy of the BTO Bird Atlas 2007-11 here.