Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Grouse Survival in Extreme Weather


During the recent bout of extreme weather which in Cambric totally covered the fells and high ground for nearly a month I was interested in how the grouse reacted. I have always been told that they will come down from the high ground to lower areas. Unfortunately on the North Pennines in the Eden Valley there is very little low ground heather. It has nearly all disappeared due to a mixture of severe grazing by sheep and the drive after the second world war for more food which resulted in the drainage and cultivation of much land.

I well remember driving along the road above the fishing's at Lazonby with Hugh Egglestone who informed me that he had shot grouse there as a young lad, this was difficult to believe as I looked at all the fields and sheep. Indeed numerous areas are still called moors with no heather present in the valley. Appleby Golf course has a few bank sides of heather that have survived but in reality the only sizable bit of lowland heather is below Dufton Fell above Bow Hall on the way to High Cup Nick. This is part of our sporting rights and indeed it had good grouse populations going back some 10 years ago. Sadly now though due to continual grazing by sheep, including overwintering and no burning, as we are not allowed the heather is very tall and stemmy and getting patchy. However on a stunning, very cold day of minus 10 in early January as Rose and I wanted a good walk I decided to go and see if we could see any grouse.

The landscape was totally spectacular as we drove up past Bow Hall and large snow drifts prevented us going any further by landrover shortly after the hall. We continued by foot on the Pennine way and got our much needed exercise. Several skiers were visible ahead coming down the slope as we climbed, with groups of walkers intermingled. The snow had drifted and frozen over level with the stone walls that enclose the drovers track and was strong enough to take our weight even though it was some 5ft thick. Which gave some idea of the severity of the conditions for the grouse. As we approached the lowland moor I kept Tia our labrador in, and we soon saw grouse everywhere. They looked massive, as they had no cover and doubtless had their feathers puffed out with air to keep warm. The grouse moved constantly, foraging over the frozen landscape, and it was only when I walked across the moor to the next rise to see how many grouse I could count that I could see what food they were finding.

Odd tips of heather were just poking through the snow which was not as deep due to the wind blowing it. It was also very difficult walking as the snow would not support our weight and we crunched through down onto and into the heather. Breasting the rise so that I could perhaps see towards 40 % of the lowland moor we counted some 140 grouse. We retreated back to the track as the light was going and slid back downhill to warmth and civilisation with a healthy respect for grouse and nature.

The walk was so enjoyable we returned the following lunchtime. On arriving at the moor we were disappointed that there were only a few grouse visible and I had come armed with Mother's new digital camera to give it a test run for her. We were chatting and wondering whether to go higher up to see if we could see where the grouse were when suddenly a covey of some 200 came over the hill and landed in front of us. I had a few teething problems with the camera, not my forte and I was struggling with instructions and zoom buttons when the whole covey took off and flew straight at us. Miraculously I managed to catch a few in flight by sheer good fortune as they streamed over us. I was fascinated by where they were heading as they turned right and headed downhill towards the farms. Unfortunately we could not see where they went and we never picked them up again.


Resourceful though grouse definitely are, I am still worried about our high worm counts and likely mortality in the harsh weather. Several friends and keepers informed me that in the old days when weather like this was much more common, oats used to be fed to the grouse and I wondered if whether anybody out there had tried this? I have also heard rumours of grouse eating hawthorn berries and dying.

Grouse Shooting at The Tufton Arms

1 comment:

nicolas said...

FASCINATING!
A lot of respect for these magical birds. I just hope they will manage to survive in this extreme weather and I look forward to see them flying in large number on a privilege "inoubliable"shooting day with you Nigel.
The Frenchman Nico