The Glorious 12th through to December

A shoot day and the culmination of a full years work, looking back on our Grouse season, I can once again say it has been a real success, we have been very lucky to have had some great weather and the bird numbers again have been consistent so we have managed to have a good number of shoot days.  The work we undertake as gamekeepers throughout the year is geared towards making the shoot season a success and this doesn’t stop for a day and our jobs just vary greatly depending on the time of year.

The start of a shoot day morning, the behind the scenes work is undertaken first, the weather check, what’s the wind direction and a check around each line of butts that will be in use on the day.  The beating trucks are out, started and filled with fuel, the game cart, the butt sticks, all the preparation done then off to meet the beaters, flankers and pickers, the paperwork next on the list, all employees listed in the book and then we can finally get up on the moors.  A good team of beaters, well driven drives, good shooting from the guns and all the birds picked make the game dealers visit at the end of the day worthwhile.

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The grouse season has now come to a close and most estates will have been finished for several weeks.

One of the main focus points now is making sure that the correct grit is put out onto the moor, the use of medicated grit or natural grit and this is determined by the worm counts that are obtained.  The presence of the trichostrongylus tenuis (also known as Strongyle Worm), has been acknowledged for more that 100 years and is a parasitic thread-worm which lives in the gut of the red grouse.  The most crucial factor in the control of the strongyle worm is knowing what the worm burdens are in the birds, this is so parasite control can be targeted at the appropriate times.  Parasitic worms should be counted from samples of 20 adult grouse randomly selected at the start and the end of the shooting season.

As a guide we know 2,500 worms per adult grouse can impact on productivity and ultimately survival, levels greater than 1,000 worms per adult grouse in the tests taken at the end of the season which triggers the need to use medicated grit.  Medicated grit is only available by licence and a vets prescription is required to purchase it.  Grit is required by grouse to aid the digestion of heather shoots which make up 80% of their diet, the grit is required more in winter as the heather becomes more “woody”. Grouse consume approx. 35g of grit per month and the grit goes round in their gizzard and breaks down the heather.

Over the last few weeks I have started putting medicated grit out, a process that’s been quite intermittent due to the inconsistent weather with jolting fog covering Westerdale on a regular basis.  I have been reducing the distance between the grit stations from the original 100 metres to 75 metres and additionally putting new grit trays out, trying to do everything I can to reduce the spread of disease within the grouse.  It is quite visible that whilst out on the moors now a good number of the grouse seem to be getting paired up especially in the places which have been left quiet for a longer period of time.

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Several estates have already had the chance to get some early heather burning fires in, which is extremely beneficial when the soil is still very wet and this ensures that there is no chance of burning into the peat, these are known as cool burn fires.  The burning season runs from the 1st October to the 15th April and is required for the regrowth and healthiness of the heather, our burning cycle used is in accordance with our agreement with Natural England, and both myself and my colleagues have all attended an NGO ran burning course.

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Getting round my traps again is next on the agenda and I’m currently using rabbit in them for bait as now the weather is getting colder the rabbit will last longer.  Every stoat or weasel caught now is very beneficial as it means fewer litters to catch in spring when the ground nesting birds are hatching chicks.  We use a variety of traps on the estate and each trap has their own target species, Fenn traps aim to catch predators such as stoats, weasels, rats and squirrels, with Larsen and multi-catcher traps trying to catch Magpies, Carion Crows, Rooks, Jackdaws and Jays.  All these animals and birds are damaging to the ground nesting bird for very different reasons, stoats, weasels, rats and squirrels prey on the birds, whereas the magpies, crows and rooks suck the eggs so both can affect the breeding possibilities by different methods.

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Information kindly supplied by Ben Mountain, Under Keeper at Rosedale and Westerdale estate.

The Summer Months

A walk around the moor at this time of year reveals two striking contrasts to the previous few months.  Most noticeable to the casual observer is the vivid purple of Heather in full bloom that covers the landscape like a well fitted carpet replacing the dull brown of previous months.
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The other perhaps less noticeable change is the relative silence in comparison to late spring!  By this I refer to the wading birds the Curlew, Lapwings, Golden Plover that have now left their breeding grounds of the North York Moors having enjoyed yet another successful year due in no small part to the habitat and protection that the managed Grouse Moors offer safe from predators.
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This doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to see at this time of year the young grouse are getting more confident and more visible, every spring and watercourse abundant with insects, not quite the barren wastelands being portrayed in the media in the run up to the Glorious 12th.  Only recently I came across a Bumble Bee nest nestled in the ground on one of our spring heather burns from a few months ago.
In late July we carried out our Grouse counts, this involves using trained gun dogs to flush the birds, following the same routes as previous years (often decades), to give us an accurate idea of the population size and the number of surplus birds we will be able to shoot.  For the most part the signs are good and reports from the rest of the North York Moors suggest another good shooting season.
With nesting activities over it allows the keepers to access the moor with vehicles in order to undertake essential maintenance to the many lines of butts used for shooting from, or the construction of new lines in areas where Grouse of previous seasons have favoured flying.
In order to access these butts, miles of Moorland tracks need to be maintained, requiring many hours of labour from the keepers and local contractors.  The time and expense of this work also benefits many other users of the moors with the ever increasing number of people taking to their mountain bikes becoming evident up and down these access routes.
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The start of August is also the key period in which to control Bracken on the lower lying slopes of the moors. Bracken is an encroaching plant that forms a dense canopy and smothers the underlying vegetation. It is also a perfect breeding habitat for ticks that carry the dreaded Lymes disease which affects dogs and people, and Louping ill which affects grouse and has massive economic impacts on the sheep industry.  Spraying is the most effective method of control and ranges from the small knapsack spray right up to aerial helicopter mounted units for larger areas.

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By the time you read this the first shots of the season will have been fired and the shooting season will be in full swing.  For those lucky enough to be shooting have a great season.

Information kindly supplied by the Head Keeper at the Wheeldale & Goathland Estate.

The Year So Far – January to April

Being a game-keeper in the North Yorkshire Moors I get to experience first hand the beautiful scenery and countryside that this area has to offer.  I hope to share my experiences and knowledge of the job that I love doing in this new keepers diary, a game-keepers role is essentially quite varied and I hope I can give you some insight into what we all get up-to at different times of the year.
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 The first part of our year is predominantly taken up by gritting (medicated in areas that have a high worm burden), trapping, tracing and burning, all the hard work stems from here, our main objective being to do what we can to help the grouse live safe, breed safe and most importantly survive, so that come the 12th August we can commence and hopefully all enjoy a glorious grouse shooting season.
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Each morning I take all of my dogs out for exercise, clean them out and then feed them, it doesn’t sound like a big job but when you have 15 it’s quite time consuming.  There has recently been new legislation brought in from the government that is effective from 6th April this year, this stating that all dogs must be micro-chipped, this is something I totally agree with and I’ve made sure that my team and I are all chipped and within the law.
Most days a drive round the fell is normally next on the agenda, check what’s happening and who’s about, week-ends and bank holidays normally keep us busier as the number of walkers normally increases, and this can lead to problems if dogs aren’t kept under control or on leads.  We also have an issue with motor-bikes riding off-road on the fell and this is an issue that we are tackling at the moment.  The routes we cover incorporates both the Fenn traps, Larsen traps and multi-catchers that we have set on the estate.  The Fenn traps are to try and catch predators such as stoats, weasels, rats and squirrels, these being one of the main sources of harm to the grouse and other ground nesting birds.  The Larsen and multi-catcher traps are to try and catch Magpies, Carion Crows, Rooks, Jackdaws and Jays as these are the birds that would normally suck the eggs.  Fenn traps are set either on wood rails that have mesh guards attached to them (this is to try and eliminate any non-target species from entering) or alternatively in tunnels that run either within, gutters, walls, track sides or any other route that looks like it could be a potential predator run.  Our estate covers an area of approx. 11,000 acres and we have multiple traps running all year round, at this time of year this forms a big part of our workload.
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 I did really enjoy the 1st February as we all went on a keepers day to enjoy the last day of the pheasant season, a great time all round including the sunny weather even if the excessive winds made the birds a bit more challenging to hit, a couple of drinks at the Milburn Arms and a nice buffet on the night to round off a good day.
The end of last year and the beginning of this saw torrential downpours, the moor was totally sodden and we were unable to get much heather burning done until March of this year. The burning season runs from the 1st October to the 15th April and the need for burning is essential to encourage the regrowth and healthiness of the heather, the burning cycle we use is in accordance with our agreement with Natural England.

A full week of burning undertaken by my team saw us complete all of the areas that we had planned to burn, for safety reasons we normally look to burn in pairs, one man driving the tractor and cutting strips around the perimeter to ensure that the fire doesn’t burn a larger area than required, and the other man being the “Fire Starter” (man in charge of the lighter).  All of my team have recently attended the NGO ran burning course, so we were all kitted up with our protective clothing and fire extinguishers, luckily we didn’t have any out of control incidents to contend with so the fire extinguishers stopped in the tractor, which is always good!

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When we finally got a covering of snow we headed straight out tracing, mainly foxes but also stoats and weasels, this involves very early mornings as we need to get out in the fresh snow before their are too many footprints for us to follow.  Ideally this job would be made a whole lot easier if we had a new covering of snow each night.  It’s very important for us to find as many foxes as we can at the beginning of the year as they normally start pairing up and mating in December, therefore we need to find as many as possible before the cubs are born as otherwise our problems could increase.

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Something I really look forward to seeing is the migrant birds returning as this is a real sign that spring is upon us, already this year I’ve seen lapwings, cuckoos, oyster catchers, ring ouzels, curlews, golden plover and merlins.  For me another great spring reminder is frog spawn, I was out for a walk with my children and couldn’t believe the amount of frog spawn that we found, they’re definitely doing well this year, as are the toads they seem to be crossing my road every night I drive home.

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Another sign that spring is here is the grouse sitting foil, I spotted the first lot this year on the 12th April, however after the really bad snowfall we encountered on the 26th April it leaves me apprehensive as to the damage that has been done to the nesting grouse.  Only time will tell as to whether the 12th August is successful, hopefully the nesting grouse below withstands the weather.

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A project that our estate has decided to work on at the moment is building nesting boxes for barn owls.  Over the last few years we have noticed a real decline in these particular owls and we as an estate have made a real effort in trying to assist them in their survival.  We decided to design and make some nesting boxes, it was quite a lengthy process but felt the design would be critical so spent much time trawling the internet for help in creating a box that would hopefully attract the barn owl.  We have so far created 20 boxes which we have placed in various locations across our estate in the hope that the barn owls will seek solace and nest in these their very own safe houses.  At the moment we have various sightings of the birds around the boxes but as yet we have not seen them inside, fingers crossed they make the brave step.

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My final words are on the Clean For The Queen that our estate completed on the 31st March which was a really nice project to be associated with.  There was a full compliment of keepers out from our estate and all 7 of us covered and litter-picked all the roadsides on the estate, not the nicest of jobs, but the results are good and this is something we do try and keep on top of but it’s just never ending.

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I hope you have enjoyed our keepers diary, look out for the next installment.

Information kindly supplied by Jimmy Brough, Head Keeper from Rosedale & Westerdale.