After the most fantastic day of grouse shooting that I can ever remember on Friday, it’s interesting to study the bodies of the fallen before they end up in the oven. We shot one and a half brace during an afternoon of racing cloud and sunshine, walking them up with the help of a young German Wirehaired Pointer, who quickly learnt to differentiate between pipits and grouse once the first bird had been put in the bag. The small handful of coveys rose briskly into the wind, making for some thrilling shooting. Once or twice the pointer froze directly infront of me, giving me the hair-raising feeling that I had walked into a minefield. At any second, I could take a step in the wrong direction and release a whirring mass of birds from the long grass. Frozen still and locked onto his target, the pointer presented a rare picture that was enough to make me gulp and whiten my knuckles on the pistol grip.
It is always amazing how slow some of the second broods can be, and having seen cheepers at six or seven weeks old in Coverdale on Monday, I was surprised to find even younger chicks rising before us as we walked. Some of these stripy beige characters must have been only four or five weeks old, and although it seems very late in the year for them to be so downy, they will be a force to be reckoned with by November. The wind tumbled them away downwind like leaves, but while the hen bird staggered off alluringly in the opposite direction, trying to lead us away, the cock gave them guidance and would soon have gathered them back together again.
The first bird in the bag was a real beauty- a young cock with dark, almost melanistic markings all over, like a spattering of treacle. It would have been easy to mistake it for a grown adult on the wing, but bald feet and a soft head told the true story. It became even easier to identify it as a young bird when the second grouse in the bag really was a grown cock, one of a barren pair that rose up and raced away just inches above the heather. Placing the two birds together left little room for doubt. The third was another of this year’s, completing the bag and turning us at last for home.
I have ordered the equipment required to conduct a worm count on my bird (of which more to come), but I couldn’t resist cracking open the gizzard and inspecting the crop for a clue as to my bird’s diet. The muscular stomach was like a purple conker, lined inside with a coarse hessian fabric. Within this lining, a fibrous mulch of khaki seemed to suggest that the grouse had been eating little in the way of heather. Given the size of the grit I have been putting out on another area of the hill, I was surprised by how small the tiny fragments of grit were, all mixed in with the forage. They chinked in the sink as I worked through them, but none of them had a diameter of more than 3mm.
In the crop, a mass of undigested seed heads told the real story. The grouse had been feeding almost exclusively on heath rush (Juncus squarrosus) seeds, although a couple of small, recently gathered fragments of grit were stained purple as if to suggest that the odd blaeberry had also gone down the hatch. I have started to see over the past few years just how heather fits into the annual pattern of grouse food. It is easy to imagine that heather is the only ingredient on the menu for grouse, but having seen birds eating an enormous range of different plant species, it starts to seem less critical. Heather retains a great deal of goodness throughout the winter, so it is crucial for birds during a few months of the year when there is little else, but the spring and summer bring an abundance of different and nutritious plant species to the hill.
Many keepers and moorland managers I have met seem to assume that grouse require a habitat of 100% heather, imagining that the full potential of a moor can only be reached if there is a uniform purple carpet from march to march. From my perspective, this not only represents the risky placing of all eggs in one basket (i.e. what do the grouse have to fall back on during an extensive heather beetle outbreak or after a wildfire), but it also does an injustice to the value, variety and diversity of moorland plants. Provided grouse have enough heather to see them through the winter, they seem perfectly content to survive in a range of habitats which, to the naked eye, often seem little more than “white hill”. The same is even more relevant in the case of black grouse, which can turn up some distance from the nearest heather.