Tarquin Millington-Drake’s tale of 500 hours, 45,000 photos, and the endless subtlelty of the wild grey partridge

Photographer and author Tarquin Millington-Drake's dedication to capturing wild grey partridge is extraordinary. Paula Lester went to meet him.

During the 500 hours he spent secreted in a hide on George Ponsonby’s Great Lemhill estate near Lechlade in Gloucestershire — capturing 45,000 images of the burgeoning numbers of wild grey partridge the then gamekeeper, Frank Snudden, had nurtured to a density of 20 breeding pairs per square kilometre — Tarquin Millington-Drake’s life became enmeshed with that of his wary subjects.

‘In the beginning, I almost gave up,’ admitted the photographer, fishing guide and author at the launch of Living with Greys at Patrick Mavros in London, which follows A Year on the Moor (2015), on the grouse’s similarly precarious lifestyle. ‘I didn’t think I’d be able to get as close to them as I had with grouse.’

Nonetheless, after observing their highways, Mr Millington-Drake located a plum spot at a junction of three hedgerows, from which he was able to closely monitor these ‘extraordinarily protective birds’. Digging a pond in the dry, hot summer of 2022 — the year Mr Ponsonby and Mr Snudden’s dedication earned them the Purdey Gold Award for Game and Conservation — was pivotal.

‘Like Heathrow Airport’ as the birds line up to drink at dawn. Credit: Tarquin Millington-Drake

‘Everyone said greys didn’t need to drink, but… it was like Heathrow airport, with birds queuing for the water,’ he says. Ensuring he was on site at 4.30am–7.30am and from 5.30pm helped, although his rule of not leaving when greys were about for fear of spooking them meant that, despite living a mile away, he was often late for supper.

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Mr Millington-Drake was struck by the subtle way greys communicate — ‘you can’t hear it unless you’re seven or eight yards away’ — and their propensity to ‘take up sentry duty’ near their young. ‘I hope the book rejuvenates or inspires an affection for the countryside.’

Living With Greys is published by Merlin Unwin on May 23 (£50).