Manchester feels like a very long way away from Galloway, but getting to Glossop by eight thirty in the morning is actually not much of a challenge. A five o’clock start allows for a few moments to drink coffee in the yard, empty the dog and watch the bats frisking wildly through the blueing sky. One hundred and seventy miles south, the day was turning hot, bright and still, without much in the way of wind even up on the heights of Peak Naze, where Heather Trust board member Richard May has let the shooting from United Utilities.
So much of the Peak District is owned by United Utilities that anyone with a grouse shooting interest is eventually sure to bump into them in an area where heather is at a premium. While they are good landlords, they are extremely reluctant to deal with traditional grouse moor management insofar as burning is concerned, and have only recently made their peace with the only viable alternative – cutting. Due to environmental restrictions, Peak Naze is exclusively a cut moor, with some small burns carried out and planned in a tiny corner of one end. Using a mower attached to a quad bike or argocat, the moor has been managed into a huge tapestry of small, rectangular cuts which are carried out on a massive scale during the winter months. More than three hundred cuts went onto Peak Naze last winter alone, and despite the fact that the work was slow and arduous, the moor looks surprisingly good in the light of some attempts to cut which end up ugly and conspicuously mechanised.
There are many reasons why cutting has worked so well at Peak Naze, but the most significant factor is the 2003 Bleaklow fire, which burnt off almost all of Peak Naze and much of the surrounding area in one fell swoop. The rate of heather growth in the south west Peak District has meant that the entire moor is now ready for management a decade later, and the plants are almost at the perfect stage for being cut, with quality regeneration coming through in just a few months. Heather that is too old tends to respond badly to cutting, and a moor with an existing management strategy would only have certain areas that would be suitable for cutting. Given that Peak Naze had its slate wiped clean by one huge fire, the entire moor is now viable for cutting, and while the work is laborious, it paid off in spades as the first grouse began to pour over the butts.
As it was, the day was never set to be a big one. The birds were moving strangely in the blurry heat, and many managed to avoid the butts altogether as the beaters laboured across the huge open spaces. Yet again, the Peak District amazed me by the sheer quantity of visitors on the ground. Not only are footpaths worn three or four feet deep into peat in some areas, but the day was interrupted more than once by walkers. Two men wandered perpendicularly through one of the main drives, halfway between beaters and guns, and the whole drive was temporarily postponed while it was explained to them what was happening. Apparently, walkers are generally perfectly happy to be asked to wait while a drive takes place and there is little trouble caused by these interruptions, but it goes to show how we can get used to anything. If walkers interrupted some of the shoots I’ve seen in Aberdeenshire and Perthshire, the keepers would be turning the air blue with fury, but when disturbance takes place as often as it does in Derbyshire, it is taken as part of the day.
Tasked with driving the argocat, I had some exciting moments on some of the steeper peat haggs, but otherwise it was a fantastic day in the bright August sunshine, with grouse over the powdery heather and blue hares ducking comically between the beaters. While cutting seems to fit the bill on this particular moor, I can think of many others where it would be next to useless. Perhaps Peak Naze is a bit of an anomoly because of its total dependence upon cutting, but when the circumstances call for an alternative to burning, there are worse situations to be in.