Grit where it’s needed

Grouse "dropping" hints as to where they are roosting

Six weeks ago, I set up some grit stations for the grouse. Working on the basis of where I last saw the birds, I turned over six peat turfs within ten acres of moorland and covered the exposed black soil with flint grit. When I went up to check them this morning, only one has been touched. A few pecks have been taken from the yellow heaps, and some tiny shards of stone have been scattered around the neighbouring tussocks. From what I can gather, grouse find grit in the soil as they forage around their territories, but providing them with artificial dumps of the stuff is always sure to be warmly received.

With only one out of six stations being used, it seems that I should have done some more research into where the birds are foraging before trying to leave supplies for them. When the NOBs conducted a grouse count last weekend, the majority of grouse were lying up in the same rough area; a damp bank of moss overlooking the neighbouring property. It never occurred to me to set up grit stations on that corner of the farm, but that’s surely where they would most appreciate it. The ground there is wet and mossy, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is one of the most popular areas on the farm. Neat stacks of droppings lie crushed against the ground, and the occasional stripy feather marks where a bird has been preening.

There is no hurry to get the grit out onto the hillside at this time of year, but the sooner the birds get used to taking it from my stations, the more likely they will be to take the medicated “anti-worm” stuff when they need it next autumn. The more I speak to keepers and grouse specialists, the more convinced I am that protecting the birds from parasites like the strongyle worm will make a noticeable difference to numbers.

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.

Botany: surprisingly interesting

Everyone knows that grouse love heather. The image of the grouse cock standing amidst the purple bloom is one of the most iconic symbols of British sport, but it quickly became obvious that the Chayne is decidedly lacking in this valuable plant. It is present, but only in short, springy carpets that are fast receding beneath the overwhelming tide of destructive grasses like molinia and mat rush.

‘Keepers distinguish between white hills and black hills. White hills are those choked in dead grass and black hills support a healthy covering of heather. The Chayne is a white hill. It has not been a black hill for many, many years, and if grouse are to recover their numbers, some significant work was in order. Carrying my “Observer’s Guide to Moutains and Moorlands” out onto the heath, I began to miserably prod and poke about in the undergrowth. Everything looked just the same; a tangled mess of woody shoots and crackling grass.

I found a black, dying plant tucked underneath a huge tussock and I identified it as cross-leaved heather (erica tetralix). Five minutes later, I discovered a big patch of ling (calluna vulgaris). The two species of heather form an important part of grouse diets, and suddenly things began to get interesting. I use latin names in this post not to show off (although it does give me an undeserved air of authority), but because they have started to make sense to me. I many not be a botanist, but knowing what grouse like and what they don’t is going to become an extremely important factor in making something out of the Chayne.

I went on to identify cotton grass (eriophorium angostifolium) and soft rush (juncus effusus), both of which indicate the presence of badly drained, soggy ground. Grouse don’t particularly like wet ground, but chicks thrive on insects that can be found there and cotton grass seeds are an important source of food for adults in the spring. There is just enough food out there to support the red grouse, but what the black grouse are eating is a total mystery. An enormous amount of research is needed in that particular area…

What started off as dull necessity turned into something really very interesting. Being an upland keeper involves an intimate knowledge not only of grouse but also of everything to do with grouse, and botany was the area that I thought I would find least interesting of all. What before was simply a vague mess of shrubbery on the moor has become, with a little research, a complex matrix of different plants that is vital to the survival of my grouse. The heather is in a decline, but at least now I know exactly what it is and where it is. Progress can start here.

Making a start: The Chayne

As far as I am concerned, the Chayne is a big piece of land. Highlanders might sniff and say that there is scarcely enough room to park a land rover, but to me, one thousand six hundred acres is quite a sizeable area. Roughly circular in shape and bordered on three sides by forestry of various ages, the farm rolls upwards to a nameless four hundred metre peak. From the summit, the Isle of Man, Cumbria and the huge ramparts of the southern uplands sprawl out in a vast carpet below, and on a clear day it is one of the most spectacular views in the south of Scotland.

Aside from the livestock, an inventory of the Chayne might run something like this:

1,600 acres of farmland – approx 1,000 moorland, 590 wasted grazing pasture, 9 pine plantation, 1 mixed woodland

3 houses – 1 habitable, 1 ruin, 1 barn

2 rivers

between 20 and 30 red grouse

1 black grouse – although a basic knowledge of biology would suggest that there is at least one more around somewhere.

innumerable vermin.

I must admit to being a bit of a sporting snob. For me, the best shooting available to British guns is completely wild. I certainly do enjoy a day’s shooting pheasant and partridge, but I find myself secretly holding on for when the beaters shout “woodcock!” and the day suddenly shifts up a gear. Shooting wild birds is the purest and most thrilling sport, and I have been fortunate enough to have a go at an enormous variety, from teal to ptarmigan.

The opportunity presented to manage a grouse moor, even on an extremely small scale and limited basis was too exciting to ignore. My main obstacles were my own jaw-dropping ignorance on the subject of moorland ecology and the state of widespread neglect which had consumed the farm.

Returning from the moor on the 12th August 2009, my friends and I carried two young grouse in our pockets. As we stepped over the gate and walked up the last few yards for a chance at a snipe, I saw two black ears and the very top of a red back trotting away along the path infront of me. It was a fox cub, and I fired two of the best at a range of around thirty yards. I didn’t know it then, but that moment set in motion a vast chain of events that is still unfolding even as I write. It was my first action to preserve the grouse on the Chayne. Needless to say, I missed.