THE 12 days of Christmas came early for Rachel Hodgeson when a plump partridge left its usual territory in favour of her back garden.

Bird experts say it is extremely rare to see the red-legged bird in urban areas and believe it has escaped its homeland during shooting season.

The partridge, which is native to Southern France, was seen pecking the grass in Miss Hodgeson's back garden on Leyburn Road, Darlington.

The 18-year-old went outside to take a photo on her mobile phone, while her father Philip found out what breed it was in his bird book.

"We thought it was unusual to see such a bird in the garden, especially where we live. The only wildlife we see is the occasional hedgehog," she said.

Andrew South, a spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), said it was unusual to see the birds in built-up areas, but not unheard of.

He said the red-legged partridges were introduced in the 17th Century and are reared for gaming purposes.

Andy Bunten, also of the RSPB, added: "You tend to see them more often in fields and open areas - they are not urban birds."