A pioneer with a passion for partridges

25 July 2018 - Published by Paul Stephens
One of the two Scottish demonstration sites in the Interreg PARTRIDGE Project, Alastair Salvesen’s Whitburgh Farms in Midlothian has its own unique challenges.

Alastair Salvesen’s Whitburgh Farms comprises 2,500 acres of mixed arable and beef overseen by grieve (farm manager) Jim Nichol. At one end of the farm are 200 sheep and sheds to house 180 Aberdeen Angus cattle and at the other is a hi-tech bio-fuel grain storage facility and in between a range of crops including oilseed rape, winter wheat, spring wheat, spring barley and winter barley. Some of the barley goes to Macallan malt whisky and part of the wheat goes to Grants. In the past 10 years, Alastair has increased beneficial habitats to cover seven percent of the land and has seen wild grey partridges go from 0 to 400 birds (Autumn counts) achieving a shootable surplus last year.


Alastair (left) with grieve Jim Nichol and the first bulls in the Whitburgh Farms line. Developing a closed herd is part of the drive for greater self sufficiency

Alastair’s approach is to embrace new technologies to meet the twin challenges of increasing biodiversity and farming profitably. One of the aims is to achieve partridge recovery within the CAP Greening regulations. Whitburgh has managed to meet the EFA five per cent of land out of production target with, among other measures, 28 miles of hedges providing shelter from weather and predators alongside uncropped eight-metre margins around every field. Alastair explained: We keep the hedges in good shape. We never cut both sides in the same year and try to widen them at the base and let them go up a bit higher.Either side of the hedge are three metres of grass for nesting, one metre unplanted for birds to dust themselves and four metres of wild bird cover. Working in partnership with Oakbank Seeds and Kings, GWCT is experimenting at a number of sites with suitable mixes including wildflowers to produce insects for chicks, seed for food and broadleaves to protect from weather and predation.

Jim explained how the crop rotation system he manages at Whitburgh is uniquely geared to farmland bird conservation. He said: In a conventional block system with huge areas of one crop, when it is harvested, birds suddenly have to travel long distances for food or shelter, so we have divided the farm into four quarters. In each quarter there is a rotation of wheat, barley and oilseed rape. This gives partridges a wide range of habitats close together, from stubbles for winter roosting to insect rich areas for young broods.

Results have been positive but for Alastair aspects of agri-environment prescriptions are impractical and counterproductive. He said:

We are trying to explain to the Scottish Government that not being allowed to spray the margins for thistles is very detrimental to the farming operation and makes you unpopular with neighbours. If we were allowed to spray early in the year, it wouldn’t damage the other plants and would allow aphids to multiply for the birds.

One of the principle challenges to making Greening work is the Scottish weather. Frost free conditions can’t be guaranteed until 1 June, so most covercrops have to go in late. This means trying to find mixes that last two or three years to provide cover all year round. The heavier rainfall also creates problems. Alastair explained: Because of the rain last year one field of straw was turned seven times. The headache we have is some of our crops ripen quite late and gaps in the weather are few and far between.

Alongside the farming operation, gamekeeping is an essential element. The pheasant shoot means Alastair can employ a fulltime keeper Graham Rankine who puts out feed for the birds in winter and spring and carries out legal control of generalist predators such as foxes and crows.

The conservation management on the farm has helped several threatened species including yellowhammers, lapwing and tree sparrows. Hares have benefitted in particular, numbering in their 100s. This is the result of a huge degree of commitment and cooperation from everyone on the farm. Alastair said: We are doing everything in hand and everyone involved has to have a good working relationship. Alastair’s fundamental principle for sustainability is to listen to people who work the land. He said: We are working with GWCT scientists to help people understand both what’s realistic in farming and how nature works. The GWCT has always recognised it’s a question of balance and I believe in that strongly.

Dave Parish, GWCT head of Scottish lowland research

As a key PARTRIDGE demonstration site, we are working with the team at Whitburgh to show land managers and policy makers how farmland biodiversity can be increased by at least 30% in a three-year period through sympathetic management on 7% of farmland. We are making improvements to local habitats and monitoring biodiversity to see how it responds. One key measure being implemented is a new covercrop comprising many plant-species, designed to support biodiversity year-round with abundant invertebrate food supplies in the breeding season, lots of seed in winter, excellent nesting cover for ground-nesting birds and escape cover for wildlife to hide in from aerial predators.