Once upon a time, in a land before pesticide, wildlife was so abundant

Visiting the restored ecosystem of the Norfolk Estate, under which the grey partridge once naturally flourished is like stepping back in time
  • @mjpmccarthy

To encounter a landscape in England overflowing with birds, I mean bursting with birds, is now a very rare event, if that landscape is farmland.

The intensification of agriculture after the Second World War devastated British wildlife. In the crowded countryside of southern England in particular, much of the fauna and flora were obliterated by the tide of pesticides which swept over the fields, followed by the mass uprooting of hedges and the creation of giant, sterile crop plains.

Between 1970 and 2010, farmland birds dropped in numbers, as a whole, by more than half. To take a handful of the most typical, much-loved species: turtle doves declined by 93 per cent; grey partridges by 91 per cent; corn buntings by 90 per cent; skylarks by 58 per cent; lapwings by 56 per cent; and yellowhammers and linnets by 55 per cent each.

Much the same thing happened to the cornfield wildflowers, and the butterflies and other insects, and the result was that the natural wildlife abundance we once enjoyed, and which previous generations had rejoiced in, vanished entirely. A colossal thinning took place, and there is only one word for the countryside we were left with: impoverished. 

Yet this week, to my astonishment, I encountered the old abundance again. It was on the South Downs above Arundel in Sussex, in the fields of the Norfolk Estate, the farm belonging to the Duke of Norfolk (if you like to be precise about your noblemen, we are talking the 18th Duke, Edward Fitzalan-Howard.)

Over the past decade, since inheriting, the Duke has transformed the wildlife of these fully commercial crop fields, for what one might say is a fairly ducal reason: he wants to shoot partridges, now in much of Britain virtually extinct in the wild.  He could buy young partridges from a game farm and simply release them, as is done everywhere with pheasant shooting, but he has chosen a different way.

For his adviser has been the world expert on the grey partridge, Dick Potts, formerly head of the Game Conservancy, now the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, and the price of Dr Potts’ cooperation was this: I will help you bring the bird back to your estate, if you restore the whole ecosystem under which it once naturally flourished.

And this has happened. Twelve miles of new hedges have been put in, and the giant monoculture prairies have been split up and shrunk. Every field has big unsprayed margins – no fertiliser, no pesticides – to permit growth of the weeds which birds and insects feed on, plus “beetle banks” for a nutritional top-up; the whole panoply of agri-environment measures dreamed up by the Government, and urged on all farmers with only limited success, has been deployed.

About half of the formidable cost has been paid for by grants; the rest has been borne by the estate. The Duke hopes to recoup some of it by starting a commercial partridge shoot, when the number of birds reaches 500 pairs (at present it’s about 300) so that it all might eventually be self-sustaining.

If you’re strongly opposed to game shooting, you will disapprove of the whole enterprise. But two things need to be said. The first is, that if we want our farmland birds back, it’s only by farmers restoring the natural ecosystem that this can happen – there isn’t any other way – and for many if not most farmers, despite very honourable exceptions, this is too much effort and cost, even with the government grants. And the second thing is, there’s no denying that across the Norfolk Estate wildlife has exploded, as I saw on a tour with Dr Potts.

All the birds mentioned above are breeding and flourishing (apart from the poor turtle dove, unsaveable and soon to go extinct in Britain). Pairs of partridges, naturally, scuttled through the grass, but also, in every field, lapwings were performing their swooping spring displays. Skylarks were showering song down everywhere. Corn buntings –who now sees corn buntings? – and yellowhammers sang from the new hedges. Linnets twittered in jumpy flocks. And this is not to mention the wheatears and the whitethroats and the stock doves, and the red kites and buzzards and kestrels, and the raven, and the peregrine falcon.

Bursting with birds, indeed: and all of them available to the public, as the estate is criss-crossed with rights of way. I was astounded. If every farmer did this, I thought… It seemed to me to be something wonderful: a pre-pesticide abundance, miraculously brought back. The skylark song is still ringing in my ears.