12/12/2017 in RZSS
Above: Contradictory to the popular Christmas song, grey partridge rarely leave the ground. Photo by F.Vassen
As Christmas fast approaches we hope no-one is placing this gift under the Xmas tree for their true love this year! Often abundantly depicted on Christmas cards, the grey partridge has unfortunately undergone dramatic declines across its native UK range. In the last 20 years, the population has declined by over 50% and the Grey partridge is now categorised as a red list priority species in the UK. The RZSS WildGenes laboratory is working hard to make sure that our only native partridge species, the Grey partridge (Perdix perdix), can be seen in the wild for many Xmases to come.
Historically, the grey partridge has been a popular game bird with many estates rearing and releasing individuals for hunting purposes. Despite these continuous releases (and assuming that some lucky individuals escape the game bag), wild populations continue to decline across Scotland. Many captive breeders are now turning to the introduced French or Red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa) to provide hunting stock as this species can be bred more easily in captivity. Although this foreign cousin is likely to compete with the wild grey partridge, as both are lowland grassland birds that feed predominantly on seeds, it seems unlikely that this is the main cause of the decline of our native grey partridge. More likely, it is the substantial decrease in suitable habitat and invertebrate biodiversity on much of the UK’s farmland, as a major part of the grey partridge diet, especially that of chicks, consists of insects. An additional problem, documented in the UK, is that released birds also have very low survival rates in the wild. There could be many reasons for this and this is where the RZSS WildGenes lab comes in. We are currently investigating whether the genetic origin of released birds is playing a role in their reduced survival rates upon release. Genetic analysis of wild and captive birds is being conducted using DNA isolated from feather samples collected by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, which we hope will allow us to better understand the role that genetic differences are playing in population survival.
Above: Fieldworkers in Greece releasing one of the sampled grey partridge. Photo by K.Kalaentizis
Unfortunately, the plight of the grey partridge is not only restricted to the UK. Greek populations are also declining and so we are working with collaborators at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki who are conducting a similar investigation in parallel. Together we are hoping to gain insights into the genetic population structure of grey partridge in Scotland and Greece, and compare this to the genetics of captive and farmed birds used for both game stock and reintroduction programs. The work is being funded by the Leventis Foundation in the hope that a better understanding of the genetics will help inform sustainable and conservation appropriate release practices within Europe.
So remember, if you do spot a partridge in a pear tree this Xmas (ignoring the fact they rarely perch in trees), count yourself (and the partridge) as very lucky, as it is an increasingly rare sight…
I look forward to updating you further on this work in the New Year.