The moorland that’s home to grouse provides a habitat mosaic that nurtures myriad birds as well as a sporting paradise like no other on Earth, says Sir Johnny Scott
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THE LURE OF MOORLAND
Britain has around 75% of Europe’s remaining heather moorland, a precious and fragile landscape of which roughly 2.5 million acres is in Scotland, with 1.3 million acres in England and Wales. Windswept and bleak in the winter, moors become a blazing carpet of purple as far as the eye can see in summer, when heather, Calluna vulgaris, comes into bloom. This stunning display lasts from late July, through August and September before gradually dying back, as the delicate flowers wilt in early October. Home to red grouse, Britain’s hardiest bird, which can survive even the harshest winter feeding on the tips and seeds of heather plants, the moorland vista we have today is renowned worldwide for its beauty and rarity. And it is the creation of careful management for grouse shooting over the past 200 years.
By the middle of the 18th century, a rapidly expanding population, the growth of our colonies and an interminable period of warfare, led to increased demands for raw materials, particularly grain and wool. Much traditional pasture came under the plough and flockmasters pushed ever further north in search of new grazings, reclaiming vast areas of rough heath and deep, rank heather moorland. They used the oldest form of agriculture – slashing and burning to create regeneration. The heather moorlands of today, which are such a feature of the landscape of northern Britain, were painstakingly reclaimed from untamed wilderness by graziers as they established their flocks. Using a system of rotational burning, the early flockmasters were able to replace the moorland scrub, gorse, thistles, bracken and old, woody heather with an even spread of nutritional regrowth to support their flocks. That this benefited the comparatively scarce and localised grouse population went largely unnoticed, except by sporting landowners and the marvellously eccentric and immensely rich Colonel Thornton of Thornville Royal in North Yorkshire. In 1782, the Colonel set forth to investigate reports of sporting potential on the northern moorlands, travelling with an entourage of retainers, hawks, hounds, gundogs and an enormous multi-barrelled gun of his own design.
His delightful Sporting Tour through the Northern Parts of England and Great Part of the Highlands of Scotland, published in 1804, was the first to advertise the north as a sporting paradise. His detailed accounts of the abundance of game, coupled with the romantic writings of Walter Scott and Robert Burns, and evocative paintings by artists such as Henry Thomas Alken and Charles Henry Schwanfelder, were responsible for setting the stage for what was to become the widespread development of grouse shooting in northern Britain.
In the early days, walking-up grouse over dogs through thick heather in the August heat carrying a heavy flintlock was not for the faint-hearted. Inspired by Thornton, the great sportsman and author Colonel Peter Hawker went north in 1812 to see for himself and the description in his Instructions to Young Sportsmen (1814) of execrable roads, verminous inns and herculean struggles through deep, rank heather, make for hugely entertaining reading. In 1816, TB Johnson’s The Shooter’s Guide advised anyone considering a grouse shooting trip in the north to copy the locals and “take this diversion on horseback, which, of course, very much lessens the fatigue”, on ponies trained to stand still while a shot was taken.
Enormous strides were to take place over the next 40 years: more heather was burned, leading to an increase in the grouse population. Improvements in shotgun technology and the development of percussion cap meant grouse could now be driven, with the first record of grouse driving occurring in 1836, on the moors above Barnsley belonging to the Spencer-Stanhopes of Cannon Hall. A western rail route from London to Edinburgh via Carlisle opened in 1848 and the eastern one via York and Newcastle opened two years later.
Rumours that northern Britain was a sporting utopia proved to be true. There was breathtaking scenery, the rivers heaved with salmon and the estuaries with wildfowl. There were partridges, hares and pheasants on the low ground and, where graziers had burned, there was any number of grouse. And with the collapse of the wool price, red deer were returning to the Highlands. With Queen Victoria’s acquisition of the Balmoral Estate in 1852 and Prince Albert’s passion for stalking and shooting grouse, northern fieldsports now had their place in the social calendar. The start of the grouse season, set by Act of Parliament in 1773 as 12 August, became the official date when Queen Victoria and her court were in residence at Balmoral.
From the beginning of the month, trains from King’s Cross were crammed with wealthy Victorians and their servants travelling north. Landlords who had lost their income from sheep rents with the collapse of the wool price were only too happy to let or sell heather moorland. With the development of the breechloader in the late 1850s, grouse driving became commonplace and grouse moors much sought-after prime land use across the uplands of Wales, northern England and Scotland. Heather burning was now in the hands of gamekeepers rather than shepherds, and the new moorland owners or shooting tenants had much to learn.
It took several decades of trial and error to get heather management right. Either too much or too little was burned and grouse numbers fluctuated, before an optimum burning policy of an annual rotation of between ¹/15th and ¹/20th of the total area of a moor was established.
A properly managed moor should have an evenly distributed mosaic pattern of between two and four hectares of different ages and lengths of heather. This provides the depth of cover for grouse and other moorland birds to nest in safety from aerial predators, space between areas of longer heather for their chicks to learn to fly and a plentiful supply of essential plant food.
‘Muirburn’ is strictly governed by legislation, and for decades burning on land below 1,500ft may only be carried out between 1 November and 31 March, and from 1 October to 15 April on land above 1,500ft. In the vast majority of cases, most burning is done on dry days in March, when the heather and vegetation litter has dried out sufficiently over winter and burning is at its most effective. On calm, dry days in late March, plumes of smoke spiralling above the skyline of the moorlands of northern Britain and the caramel scent of burning heather are as much a sign that the seasons have changed and spring has arrived in the hills as the territorial grumbling of cock grouse.
One of the greatest gifts of grouse moors is the diversity of species that thrive on them, clearly demonstrating that high-quality habitat management via shooting can deliver many conservation benefits. In April and May, the moors come alive with birdsong as the summer visitors arrive to nest and rear their young safe from predators in a haven provided by generations of moorland keepers. Red and black grouse, golden plovers, curlew, lapwings, snipe, twite, short-eared owls, skylarks, meadow pipits, merlins, hen harriers, greenshanks, dotterels, ring ouzel, peregrine falcons and, in the north of Scotland, golden and white-tailed eagles, breaking the long silence of winter with their exuberant melody.
Rural Britain is continually victimised by ignorance and prejudice, and inevitably grouse moor management has become a target for animal rights activists. For the second time in five years, a petition that called for a ban on driven grouse shooting has been rejected on the grounds this would negatively impact conservation efforts, local economy and the social well-being of those who take part. Of the 11 MPs involved in the debate on 21 June 2021, only two were in favour of stopping driven grouse shooting and their reasons for a ban were squashed by an overwhelming volume of evidence supporting the status quo.
Furthermore, a new report from the University of Northampton concluded that there is no better alternative use of our uplands than integrated moorland management. The 242-page paper reviewed the evidence base of sustainable driven grouse shooting against the various alternative uses of moorland. Within this, it considered three major factors: economic, social and environmental.
The report concluded that if the public and Government value heather moorland landscapes, these moorlands need to be looked after. The study found that the current model of integrated management offers a sustainable approach to maintaining such landscapes and there was no evidence that other management regimes would deliver on such a scale.
Professor James Crabbe of Oxford University, the independent chairman of the report, stressed the need for objectivity, saying: “We have looked at all sides of an argument in an attempt to be as objective as possible and to remove any emotional and political elements which driven grouse shooting has in the past engendered. We feel that the report will be very important in making sure that negative environmental, economic and social impacts will not be used in this important part of our land and our heritage.”
Moorland managers and keepers have nearly 200 years of practical experience in heather conservation. They have created a breathtaking scenery that benefits everyone – indeed, 90% of grouse moors have been designated National Parks or given Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty status and more than 30 million people visit grouse moor landscapes annually in England alone. No one could be more devoted to preserving this precious habitat, where Robert Burns’s muircock “springs on whirring wings among the blooming heather”. How sad and sterile this lovely landscape would be without them.