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.