The Nitty Gritty

Putting out grit for the grouse: tedious, but important...

Grouse don’t have teeth. It would halve their romantic appeal if they did. Imagine the heathery uplands filled with grinning birds, smiling and winking like body builders on Muscle Beach. It would be a grotesque spectacle, and every day I am grateful that all birds have an alternative method of ‘chewing’.

Like many moorland birds, grouse choose to eat very low quality food. Woody shoots of heather are extremely difficult to digest, so the grouse has to work very hard to get any energy from them. He will deliberately swallow scraps of grit and stone and store them in his stomach so that when he has a bellyfull of low quality fodder, he can use the hard particles as part of his natural digestive action to break up and destroy tough shoots. Once mashed up and mixed together with his stomach juices, the grouse is able to take what he needs from the evil concoction. Grit is vitally important in this context, and helping grouse to get the most from their food is one of the priorities of the grouse ‘keeper.

Grit lies naturally on every hillside, but apparently, tests have shown that even where grit is plentiful, grouse will happily take artificially deposited materials. Once they have an established grit point, grouse can eat fairly serious quantities of the stuff, but my first problem was working out where to start. Taking a bucket filled with cornish flint grit, I dug out four sample tussocks of heather from across the farm and covered them over with the tiny stones. Over the next few weeks, I will be going back to see if they have been used and I’ll top them up accordingly. A potential problem may be that I have already forgotten where two of them are.

Grouse seem to be fairly resilient birds, but they can have trouble with several parasites. Gross and unpleasant ticks smother grouse chicks and if there are enough of them, they can sometimes even kill adult birds. At the same time, worms lodge in their digestive systems and can weaken entire grouse populations. On the whole, it is impractical and costly to catch and inject individual birds with medicines to protect against worms, so most ‘keepers use medicated grit. If I manage to establish any regular grit stations on the Chayne, I will mix some medicated grit in next winter to support the birds over the cold hard months when worms can really cause damage.

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