Grey partridge are “the barometer of the countryside”

The true lie of the land

Landowners are reviled as enemies of the environment by the Jacobins of the green movement


This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

There is an understated English bird species, so perennially and universally persecuted by circumstance and predator alike, that Shakespeare used them, in both Henry VI and Much Ado About Nothing, as a metaphor for tragic death. It is rare, red-listed in fact, with a mere 40,000 breeding pairs still at large in the British Isles.

For a literary giant it is not that big; 30 centimetres or so in height, a fat one tops out at around 500 grams. The rasping “kerr, kerr”, which passes for its song, sounds akin to a farm-gate in need of oiling. Its plumage is muted, like a dank December day in Suffolk. Doomed, tuneless and dumpily dowdy then, yet the grey partridge is an avian superstar, unique in truth and of the utmost national importance to nature recovery.

Described by the late Dr Dick Potts, former director general of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) as “the barometer of the countryside”, the Grey is the prime indicator species for biodiversity in lowland landscapes. So pernickety is this bird regarding food and habitat, that farms with a healthy stock of partridge are guaranteed to have soils that are healthy, alive with microflora and fauna. Wild food sources will be plentiful and the hedgerows laid thick, grasslands and margins will be species-rich, seething with invertebrate life, and there will be a clear balance between predators and prey.

Put simply, if the grey partridge chooses to live on your land, then so will almost everything else. It is curious then, that whilst this rare native is so indicative of, and so integral to, the overall good of nature, whilst it is exalted by a few hundred tweed-clad toffs and a cabal of old-school ornithologists, radicals within the environmental lobby don’t think very much of it at all.

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Eddie is one of those tweedy curios, a man who has dedicated the past two decades, and a toe-curling amount of his own money, to conserving the grey partridge. An accountant before he became a farmer, he is unlike many of the nouveau lairds; the types who wheeled and dealed their way to millions before buying up a swathe of the Highlands or Home Counties with misty-eyed pipe dreams of damming beavers and wandering bison. Eddie is from proper agricultural stock. When his father died some 20 years ago, he took over the family estate, including Peppering Farm, on the South Downs. He clearly saw he had two primary tasks.

Firstly to “do” farming well, employing knowledgeable farm staff to assist him in eking out the meagre profits one can from food production. Secondly, he looked at the health of the others who call Peppering Farm home — namely the wildlife. He chose the bellwether grey partridge to guide him.

Partridge are mentioned twice in Shakespeare

The grey, he knew, belonged at Peppering, but when Dick Potts and his team went counting them, Eddie learned they were missing — all bar a few pitiful pairs, a meagre number diminished still further when an off-piste rambler’s dog gobbled up one of the hen birds. The story of how Eddie took hold of this parlous state of affairs and turned Peppering around from a prairie of arable monoculture to a profitable farm business, which simultaneously boasted a mosaic of biodiverse and meaningful habitats, is now told in an exquisite book The Return of the Grey Partridge is an account expertly written by the naturalist Roger Morgan–Grenville, with Eddie filling in the details.

The book is a rarity in the genre of nature writing; there is no political axe to grind, nor any narrative of Us versus Them. So balanced is it that it was favourably reviewed by Dr Mark Avery, the former director of conservation for the RSPB. As the title indicates, Eddie succeeded. The grey partridge has returned to Peppering. The 11 individual birds Potts counted in September 2003 have swelled to between 1,000 to 2,000 every year since. Why then, you may ask, have so few heard of this win for nature? Why isn’t Eddie being feted by the Green movement in the same manner as, say, Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell from Knepp in West Sussex?

It may be because Eddie is a keen shot, and many within the environmental world viscerally despise game shooting; killing, they believe, is wondrous when wolves do it, but not so much when carried out by a man with a shotgun or rifle. In The Return of the Grey Partridge, Eddie is unabashed, making it abundantly clear that a major driver for his project was to create a sustainable yet shootable surplus of grey partridge, with punters paying top dollar for a day’s shooting and thereby funding the ongoing conservation work. The driven grey partridge is indeed the blue riband in sporting terms, the southerner’s answer to the Red Grouse — exclusive, wild and challenging.

It could equally be that his methodology for bringing back the Grey jarred with the nature recovery zeitgeist. Eddie’s methods were, in many ways, traditional. He conserved and continued farming. Not for him, simply running away and putting his faith in Gaia to do the hard graft, as propounded by rewilding proponents. He returned sheep to his formerly exclusive arable rotations, which inevitably riled George Monbiot, for whom concrete and petrol are tofu compared with mutton and wool.

Eddie’s replanting and managing of lost hedgerows, and his farming uneconomical areas for nature rather than for food — sowing crops that provide bird seed, pollen and nectar — are practices dismissed as “gardening” by Steve Carver, professor of Rewilding and Wilderness Science at the University of Leeds.

Worse still for some huffy academics, Eddie’s field staff are far removed from the North Face-clad ecology graduates found working on reserves belonging to NGOs. The Peppering conservation team are largely sons of the soil — farm workers, a goth entomologist and a quintet of gamekeepers — the latter’s role in shooting making them “less of a human being” in the diagnosis of the breakfast television authority and RSPB president, Dr Amir Khan.

It could of course simply be that the Grey itself is too nondescript and shy; plain dull when compared with “charismatic megafauna” a word salad term for wolves, lynx and other extinct creatures, species endlessly championed by the never knowingly correct brothers Goldsmith. Eddie’s efforts go unsung by those with unilateral views on wildlife conservation. It may also be that an increasingly influential section of the environmental lobby has disowned Eddie’s efforts because Peppering is part of the vast Arundel Estate, and Eddie is better known as Edward Fitzalan–Howard, 18th Duke of Norfolk.

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The sometime Friends of the Earth activist-turned-author, Guy Shrubsole, has long had it in for aristocrats, particularly the Duke of Norfolk. Shrubsole organises mass trespasses at Arundel through his Right to Roam movement. It has sabotaged legal traps set there to capture carrion crows, one of the most prevalent predators of grey partridge broods. In his 2019 book Who Owns England? Shrubsole makes his prejudice against large landowners, particularly titled ones, clear.

Whilst he gets lost on his way to explaining why this particular section of society incurs his specific wrath — one supposes wayward rambling comes naturally with Right To Roam — he does get there eventually, revealing that a mere one per cent of the population owns half of the land in England. Yet he saves his most caustic venom for those individuals who own 30 per cent of Albion, aristocrats such as Eddie Norfolk, who he theatrically claims “stole vast swathes of our land through bloodshed, conquest and enclosure”.

As Shrubsole correctly highlights, hereditary peers do enjoy healthy tax breaks and farm subsidies on the land they own, but then so does anyone who owns farmland, rewilders included. It should be noted that regardless of title, all farm subsidies disappear in 2030. The chances are the peers will cling on regardless to their ancestral acres. Whether the land-banking newbies will is another matter. So why do the likes of Shrubsole label toffs as destroyers of worlds when so many of them are, as Aldo Leopold defined the word conservationism, “bringing a state of harmony between men and land”?

Eddie is no anomaly of ducal conservation. Examples of the aristocracy throwing themselves into nature conservation are legion, both historically and contemporarily. Take the Earl of Leicester, for example, who owns the 10,000-hectare Holkham estate. One only has to read Jake Fiennes’ 2022 book Land Healer to discover what an Earl with a vision and a decent gamekeeper can do both for farming and for wildlife in North Norfolk.

My own neighbour, the octogenarian Sir Kenneth Carlisle, has made it his life’s work to conserve grey partridge on his Wyken estate. His son Sam is now taking on the mantle with a near manic zeal. Even at the very top of the tree, who can deny the quite remarkable lifetime of dedication to global wildlife conservation shown by the late Duke of Edinburgh, or for that matter his son, the King?

Since the publication of Who Owns England?, Shrubsole along with a group of fellow young(ish) firebrands have continued to hammer out the narrative that lords are bad and dukes are worse. These toffs, they repeat, do not merely own the land that should by right belong to the masses; they have poisoned it with their farming, killed every bird that flies and every fox that runs and closed the footpaths at the point of a keeper’s gun.

These words, sadly, seem to find traction with an audience who are environmentally engaged and understandably concerned for the future of our declining wildlife. Yet, invariably, these are people with little practical understanding of how agriculture, land management or landscape scale conservation works. Picking on dukes and earls is, I suppose, a canny means of attacking the establishment. Classism towards toffs is the last bastion of discrimination that goes unchallenged. Better still if you can hide your sectarianism behind a fig leaf of the brightest green.

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The problem with all this toff-bashing is that whilst it may scratch a socialist itch, it ultimately does nothing for wildlife. Nature needs space, and obviously large landowners have more of this than smaller landowners. The Peppering project was such a success in part thanks to its scale, covering some 2,000 hectares. I am involved with a farmland nature recovery project in Suffolk similar to Eddie’s. Yet the challenges facing our 6,000-hectare “High Suffolk Farm Cluster” are far greater than those at Peppering.

In our cluster, as is the case with each of the 100 or so other farm clusters across the UK, multiple small and medium-sized farm enterprises must coalesce and combine to create one nominal land mass for nature. The results for wildlife are promising, yet there is the constant difficulty of navigating, aligning and catering for the specific needs and foibles of each individual farmer within the cluster. Clusters work, but they are nonetheless conservation by committee. Eddie has no such issues; he works under his own benevolent dictatorship.

To be meaningful, nature recovery also needs cash, lots of cash. The RSPB for example forked out over £120 million of the near £165 million it raised in 2023 to carry out its annual core conservation activities. Although there are a few impoverished lords at large in the UK, most of the hereditary peers are privately wealthy. Yet Shrubsole’s disdain for peers cannot be based upon private wealth. He remains silent about the eight times billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, despite the Dane being the largest single landowner in Scotland. Admittedly Povlsen has rewilded his 80,000 hectares rather than managing it in an Eddie Norfolk style, which most likely accounts for this inconsistent oversight.

It seems clear that Shrubsole & Co’s trespassing against Eddie Norfolk and his kind, both metaphorically and physically, has nothing to do with any technical disagreement over conservation methodology or even large-scale land ownership itself. It is much more tawdry. These Poundland heirs to Robespierre simply cannot abide the symbiotic relationship that tweedy eccentrics with hereditary titles have for the land they have owned for so long. It is not so much that these old duffers own the land — they are of the land.

Will Green Jacobinism ultimately overturn the old order of title and privilege? Unlikely — British revolutions are agricultural, industrial and technical. Yet the endlessly vitriolic portrayal of the landowning upper class as enemies of nature recovery will inevitably begin to erode the fragile collaborations that currently exist between lord and layman, shooter and scientist, rewilder and regenerative conservationist. Shame on those bigots, I say. Go and choose another target for your hate.

If nothing else, the grey partridge deserve better.

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