Birds known as Frenchmen dash for cover during an otherwise barren spell - Roger Ratcliffe

A red-legged partridge. Picture by Roger Ratcliffe.
A red-legged partridge. Picture by Roger Ratcliffe.
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On a dull winter’s afternoon not much bird life usually stirs along the peaceful back lane which runs north from Grassington to Kettlewell.

In spring and summer, of course, the air would be filled with piping from curlews and oystercatchers and the liquid squeals of lapwings, and sometimes a little owl might watch me unblinkingly from a gatepost. But at this time of year my walks along this road have rarely yielded more than a friendly robin or the bass notes of carrion crows.

So it was with real joy that I spotted eight stocky birds with rapidly whirring wings shoot low across the hedge tops and settle in a field. It was a covey of red-legged partridges.

Further east, their size and manner of flight might have led me initially to conclude they were grey partridges, but that’s now pretty unlikely given that four-fifths of the population has disappeared in the past 40 years. Also, greys prefer more cultivated land, albeit to their detriment since agrichemicals are blamed for the species’ steep decline.

Red-leggeds, on the other hand, prefer well-drained soils just like the limestone of Upper Wharfedale.

And they seem to be thriving there, although it is impossible to say how many of the birds have been bred in captivity and released for shooting or whether they are the remnants of a population first identified in this part of the Yorkshire Dales in the mid-1960s.

The species was introduced from the continent, initially without success during the reign of Charles II to supplement grey partridges for hunters in the royal parks of Windsor and Richmond.

Much of today’s population can be traced to an estate in Suffolk where the Earl of Hertford released a large number of young birds in 1770 after bringing the eggs from France and putting them under brooding hens.

This is why red-leggeds are often called Frenchmen or French partridges, although the bird is actually far more common in Spain.

In Yorkshire, it was occasionally released for guns, and John Mather’s The Birds of Yorkshire chronicles some early introductions, among them at Hornby Castle near Bedale and Swinton Castle, Masham, in the 1840s, Ingleby Manor in 1860 and at Warter Priory in the Yorkshire Wolds around 1892.

The red-legged partridge’s status has been somewhat muddied by its now discontinued cross-breeding with another member of the partridge family, the chukar, apparently to make the birds more of a sporting shot.

Red-leggeds tend to run across a field when initially disturbed, whereas chukars and grey partridges are likely to spring into the air.

Most of my encounters with red-legged partridges have been at close quarters, so I can testify as to their unwillingness to play the game desired by sportsmen. They run along a hedgerow much like a rabbit, or disappear into cover.

On a walk near Harrogate one bird sat long enough on a stile for me to dig out my camera and photograph it from a distance of a few yards.