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Growing the Partridge family At the turn of this century, the iconic Grey Partridge's days looked numbered in Ireland. But a concerted campaign by the Department's National Parks and Wildlife Service has seen their numbers soar - and has helped other species thrive too

Just 18 years the Irish landscape looked set to bid goodbye to the iconic Grey Partridge. By 2002 there were roughly only 22 left, and in just one corner of the land: Boora Bog, in County Offaly. The signs weren't good as, a decade earlier, the Grey Partridge had become extinct in Northern Ireland. By 1991, it was at serious risk in the Republic too, categorised as a Red-listed Bird of Conservation Concern.

But Boora Bog offered hope - a hope that human intervention could save the Grey Partridge for future generations. The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht's National Parks and Wildlife Service purchased the core conservation area for partridge from Bord Na Móna around 2005. In the last 14 years it has been directly managing and funding this species recovery project on those 260 hectares.

"Against the backdrop of concerns for species extinctions globally, this is a remarkable story of hands-on conservation in action"

A combination of habitat creation and management coupled with active nest protection and a captive breeding programme over the years has achieved astonishing results.

Young Grey Partridges are protected from predators at the site before being released into the wild

The population in Boora has increased from 22 birds in 2002 to an estimated maximum of 900 in the autumn count of 2019. It's a success that's been achieved through hard work and dedication by NPWS staff and, in the early years, by Professor Brendan Kavanagh and the Irish Grey Partridge Conservation Trust.

But the project needed buy-in from the community for the idea to ensure its long-term success. "The landowners and farming community around Boora in Offaly have also been a great support to the project as has been the Offaly Regional Game Council and the local gun clubs," says Padraig O'Donnell, NPWS Regional Manager North Eastern Region, who is also the project manager over this project.

"Against the backdrop of concerns for species extinctions globally, this is a remarkable story of hands-on conservation in action," says Padraig. "Grey Partridges were about to disappear forever, now this project has brought the birds back from the verge of extinction and for the first time, along with the support of the local farming community, are well on the way to establishing a viable population in the wild."

Boora, with the Slieve Bloom Mountains in the background

One of only two native game birds in Ireland (along with the Red Grouse), the Grey Partridge is recognisable from its reddish head and grey and brown body. Although well able to fly, partridges are good runners and spend a lot of their time on the ground.

Forming strong family bonds, they can be seen running around in groups of up to 20 - offering protection in numbers - foraging for food.

The captive breeding programme, where birds are protected from predators, threw up challenges - and surprises. The NPWS team found that chicks bred from two captivate parents are very poor at protecting themselves from predators. The answer was to cross-breed captive birds and those from the wild.

The challenge, though, was to find Grey Partridges with the closest genetic match to Irish birds. DNA matches were sought in the UK, France and around Europe. The answer came from a far-flung place: Estonia. This mix now ensures that young are equipped with the survival skills to sense - and avoid - danger out in the open.

But then something magical happened.

While the Grey Partridge thrived, nature followed in its wake. The Irish hare, barn owls, Hen Harriers and a multitude of wintering seed-eating birds, including green finches, chaffinch, goldfinch and buntings, made their home in the Offaly oasis.

Clockwise, from top: Narrow-bordered bee hawk-moth (Photo: Padraig Comerford); Painted Lady; Red Admiral; and Peacock butterflies. (Photos by Stephen Rushforth)

Padraig puts it down to the pioneering agriculture land management, seed selection and crop sowing practices, which in tandem could only succeed with the vital input of nest protection, protection from predators and captive breeding and release. The overall approach has turned cutaway bogland into the perfect home for life to thrive.

"The Grey Partridge Project site is recognised as having exceptionally high levels of biodiversity," says Padraig. And the team is particularly proud of how the Grey Partridge has helped other birds in need. "Birds associated with farmed landscapes and whose populations are in significant decline also occur at the NPWS Grey Partridge Project in high numbers. They include the Lapwing, Skylark, White Throat and Meadow pipit. The project area also hosts the highest concentration of breeding Lapwing in Ireland," he says.

There has been a change in the bird-release strategy in recent years, with the release of more of the Grey Patridges into the surrounding Glás Measure lands, which support biodiversity, in the locality.

RTÉ report on the Grey Partridge project, September 2019

The Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan TD, praised the project on a visit to the site in 2019. “Against the backdrop of concerns for species extinctions globally this is a remarkable story of hands-on conservation in action," the Minister said.

Grey Partridge, photographed by Tom Egan

Land management has proved that biodiversity can be a win-win for farming and nature. Photo: Padraig Comerford

Nesting and cover strips which allow the Grey Partridge to thrive. Photo: Padraig Comerford

The breeding programme has seen numbers swell to 900

Other birds, such as this Lapwing chick, have made Boora their home

Finches gathering in the trees. Photo: Padraig Comerford

Lapwings over the skies of Offaly