Grouse in Marginal Places

grouse
Taking a different angle

Subscribing to the philosophy of “better late than never”, it is worth taking a half hour’s break from a morning’s review of heather cutting techniques to look back on a really useful meeting I had in December with Dick Bartlett of British Moorlands, who indulgently came down to Galloway to see some of the moors and hill ground that I have been enthusing about for the past six or seven years. We looked at two or three hills during a day of low cloud and flying wind, then retreated to the pub to exchange theories on a subject that is very close to my heart; game management in marginal areas.

Dick is based on Speyside, where his novel approach to moorland management has allowed him to pioneer some really interesting new techniques for producing grouse. He is a firm advocate of heather cutting as part of a wider management strategy, and some of his theories have been carried into practice on several of the moors which he manages in Morayshire. By cutting long, narrow strips in a grid pattern across an extensive area of heather, Dick has been able to create quality habitat for grouse without having to rely solely on burning, and when conditions have been right, fires can be put in to the cut matrix with a minimum of risk and manpower. This has been particularly useful on his ground where heather was all at a uniform height after several years without management, and his work has been based (at least in part) on introducing some variety to an uninteresting sward.

The heather on Dick’s hill is so slow growing that it might well be managed on an 18 year burning rotation, but successive seasons of careful management with fire and blades have brought in fast-growing flushes of blaeberry and cowberry alongside some really promising new heather growth to the advantage of the grouse and hares. The whole set-up is fascinating, and I have been up to walk the ground (with notepad, camera and shotgun too) several times over the past four years, but Dick’s broader philosophy is the most interesting and directly transferrable aspect of his work.

The SGA recently identified some of the core areas of moorland as part of a strategy to protect and conserve Scotland’s valuable heather in the face of proposed planting schemes. This was a useful exercise, but while it identified the key areas of heather, it also revealed the marginal ground where little or no management is undertaken. As you might imagine, only a few scattered specks of moorland were highlighted in Dumfries and Galloway, and the Fleet valley was the only “core area” identified in the South West. So what is to become of the many thousands of acres of moorland elsewhere in the Southern Uplands which have become degraded and fragmented by over-grazing, under-grazing and afforestation?

Increasingly, upland sporting management has been abandoned altogether in the southwest. Landowners don’t get returns which are in any way proportionate to their investments, and sporting tenants in the hills are about as rare as blackgame. If we are going to hold on to some vestiges of sporting management and enjoy the many associated benefits, we need to rethink the whole discipline and accept the facts as they lie before us.

There will never again be large scale moorland management in Galloway, so rather than give up altogether, we need a new approach. Perhaps we need to accept the presence of predators and come to terms with the fact that we cannot catch up with every fox. Much of our heather is knackered, and it is unrealistic to imagine that it will ever be evenly managed or looked after again. Most of our keepers are pheasant men with little time to spend on the hill, so any work carried out on the heather must be refined or reimagined to achieve maximum impact.

Some of Dick Bartlett’s work has focussed on creating a kind of habitat in which game birds hold an upper hand over their predators. This has included creating “hurdles” to foil low-hunting hawks or leaving cut stick as shelter to help chicks hide from crows and ravens. Basic studies have shown that chicks are able to find as many insects in narrow cuts through the heather as they can in wide fires, and when a raven comes passing over, I’d rather my young birds were within arm’s reach of long vegetation than caught out on the short stuff. It’s not rocket science, but it does represent an interesting shift in perspective which could have some useful applications in marginal areas like Galloway.

There is no alternative to effective predator control, but there are some “cheats” which allow grouse to get an upper hand and provide some low-intensity sport where otherwise there might be nothing. Many of Dick’s techniques are helping to improve fortunes for black grouse and mountain hares, and the mechanism of sporting management ticks on in the background. In a good year, Dick can shoot driven grouse later on in the season – an impressive feat for a marginal piece of ground without a full-time keeper.

Accepting the circumstances and trying something different may be the key to preserving crucial sporting management, and if we can come to terms with the fact that we’re not all Angus or the North Pennines, we might be able to innovate our way into a new middle ground, shooting a few grouse and maintaining the heather coverage in half-forgotten places where the momentum is always to plough and plant trees.

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