Yesterday, grouse moors across Britain will have echoed to the repeated crack of expensive shotguns, barking dogs, and the throaty growl of Range Rovers slowly making their way up hill. Yesterday was the Glorious Twelfth, the most significant day in the field sports calendar, the start of this year's grouse shooting season.
Once, the first of the small plump birds shot on the Twelfth were flown down to the Savoy in London, commanding a high price at the table. And they still do - moor owners will earn £150 for every pair shot down, and many, many thousands of grouse will be shot this weekend. But this sport of the Victorian aristocracy and their successors, the 21st-century's corporate executives, is finding it increasingly difficult to prosper.
This jittery little game bird is the cause of a major but barely-reported battle over the conservation of vast areas of northern England - the desolate moors and peat bogs of the North Pennines, the Peak District and Northumberland, which played host yesterday to the start of the shooting season. It is a dispute over the future of a sport now deeply entrenched in the economies and traditions of northern England, and the survival of hundreds of square miles of uplands that protect rare birds and unique flowers. Even the safety of nearby towns and cities such as York is at stake - these moors ought to be holding back thousands of tonnes of rainwater each winter, but increasingly, they can't.
English Nature, the official conservation agency, has accused moor owners of burning heather too frequently, of allowing sheep to over-graze and of cutting tens of thousands of kilometres of trenches to drain the bogs. And, like many other conservation disputes, this one is easily explored on the ground, on the blanket bogs and heathlands of the North Pennines, where the hills are a mottled camouflage of khaki, dun browns and occasional pink flashes of flowering heather.
Lying on the eastern flank of the Pennines, the high moors close to the market towns of Teesdale - towns such as Barnard Castle, Stanhope and Middleton-in-Teesdale - have been famous for generations for their shooting. And taking a short stroll along the wind-buffeted roads which cross those moors, one might easily come across the source of much of the trouble - a freshly cut trench, known as a "grip", and the often vast tracts of hillside burnt clear of heather. One nearby moor is typical. A grip has been recently cut alongside a new track leading off the road on to the hill, and the sharply-edged trench reveals a deep layer of moist, earthy peat, a dark chocolate brown in colour. But already, the moisture is leaching out.
Large pads of once sodden moss - the normally sponge-like sphagnum which is a building block of peat - are now parched and shrunken, as they are starved of water by the nearby grips. Instead of a once-typical squelching feel where your feet disappear into the ground, the peat is now taut and dry, notes Tim Melling, a naturalist with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. "This is a sphagnum moss. It will die now, because it's being starved of water, and the cotton grass here is struggling too - I've not seen any flower heads yet," he adds. "It's the last dying breath of a blanket bog really. It doesn't feel like blanket bog when you walk on it, does it? Not seeing many birds, are we?"
Across the hills are a series of uniformly shaped, cinder grey areas of recently-burnt heather - some stretching up to a kilometre across. They are burnt to create a new, sweeter growth of heather for both grouse and, often, the "fresh bite" needed for grazing sheep. "I think that's enormous," says Melling, pointing at one example. "That's a fire bigger than the couple of hectares which English Nature prefer - they know that small areas of burning create what these moors need: a really diverse mosaic of different types of plants and insect-life."
His attention is caught by the markedly even height of the heather across the surrounding hills. Grouse moor owners would regard this as ideal - the perfect breeding conditions for red grouse. Melling dismissively sees this as "grouse farming" - a process, which at its worst, is akin to the sterile-seeming cereal fields that stretch to the horizon in east Anglia.
"The uniformity here is just staggering. If you end up burning too frequently, you end up with this shaved appearance. It looks like a mowed lawn, doesn't it? And in five years' time, you just won't see any cross-leafed heath at all, particularly after they've burnt it. It makes my blood boil. This is supposed to have the highest level of protection. Ask English Nature if they've consented to this."
A senior species protection officer for the RSPB, Melling is a trim, sandy-haired, 40-something ecologist who has the infectious energy of a David Bellamy or a Bill Oddie. He is also a veteran of moorland conservation, and the lead author of one of the RSPB's most contentious recent reports, Peak Malpractice. Published earlier this year, it alleged there is a direct correlation between bad moorland management and the illegal, systematic persecution of rare birds of prey in some parts of the Peak District National Park.
"On these grouse moors, they like to have shortish heather where the young red grouse chicks can hatch and forage," Melling says. "But if we had the full mosaic of proper moorland habitat, you would have all those birds - maybe not in the same numbers, but it would be a more sustainable eco-system. This is what you would really want."
His expert eye can pick out some of the tiny plants sheltering under the heather and cotton grass, such as the minute bright red nodes of a scarce moss, or the curled fronds of a sundew, one of Britain's only native insect-eating plants, with a tiny, trapped midgie being slowly digested. "That will be dead next year. Because the peat here is nutrient poor, it needs the insects - they're like its cheese and biscuits."
Nearby, exposed now by burnt heather, he spots the leaves of a lesser twayblade. "That's one of Britain's smallest orchids but it can't survive in these exposed conditions. This is quite a rare plant. I haven't seen one myself for about five years. This is just awful. Because they've put in the drainage ditch, this is likely to get much, much drier. This is a really nasty blanket bog problem."
This stretch of grouse moor is deep inside a large and significant SSSI (Special Site of Scientific Interest), catchily referred to as Bollihope, Pikestone, Eggleston and Woodland Fells. It has earned the highest types of environmental protection for 10 scarce "red-listed" birds, such as merlin, teal, black grouse, golden plover and redshank, as well as its dry heath and its boggy moorland. And it is just one of a sprawling network of specially-designated sites which are part of the North Pennines Special Protected Area that links moors from the former steel town of Consett in County Durham in the north east through to Skipton in the south.
English Nature, the Government's main conservation agency, has ruled that this SSSI - like a majority of the peat bogs and moorland heaths on the surrounding Pennine hills, is in very poor condition indeed. These sites are of global importance, offering a unique type of high moorland bog that are home to a particular combination of wading birds, iconic and scarce birds of prey such as the hen harrier and the merlin, or the minute orchids and lichens that Melling identified.
Nearly nine tenths of it is officially described as being in "unfavourable" or "unfavourable declining" condition. It has been heavily over-grazed by sheep, over-burnt by gamekeepers, and dried out by repeated drainage. And this site is just one of hundreds that are in trouble.
The UK prides itself as being one of the EU's greenest member states, yet the problems posed by grouse moors threaten to derail attempts to restore the country's SSSIs to an acceptable standard. And that failure could be expensive. The Treasury could effectively "fine" the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if not enough of them are brought back to acceptable condition within the next four years. In 1998, Defra signed a deal with the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to ensure that 95 per cent of England's 4,118 SSSIs would be brought up to "favourable" condition by 2010. Like every Whitehall department, that "Public Service Agreement" or PSA is effectively a performance contract for Defra - one on which the Treasury can judge its effectiveness.
And these Special Sites of Scientific Interest cover more than 1m hectares of some of England's finest and most-loved landscapes, from the saltwater marshes and dunes near Alnmouth on the Northumbrian coast to the River Itchen in Hampshire, and to the Devil's Dyke chalk grasslands in Cambridgeshire. But, with less than four years to go, English Nature is still well short of hitting that target, with another 25 per cent of those 1m hectares still in an "unfavourable" state.
And the most widely-damaged types of all are the blanket bogs and upland heaths of northern England - chiefly grouse moors. Less than 60 per cent nationwide are in a good enough state. Across England, roughly 175,000 hectares of bog and moorland have been damaged - an area more than five times the size of the Isle of Wight.
The north east is the worst performing region in England, with only a half of its sites in target condition. According to English Nature, over 48,000 hectares of bog and upland heaths in the north east are in "unfavourable" condition - principally due to burning, overgrazing and drainage.
While in County Durham, the problem is particularly acute: less than one third of all the SSSIs in the Land of the Prince Bishops are in target condition, thanks chiefly to decades of inappropriate management of the moors. And using the Freedom of Information Act, The Independent on Sunday has discovered that more than £1.1m has been paid in the last year to local moor owners, sheep farmers and managers who control these SSSIs to improve their land.
There are several critical issues underpinning the concerns about the degradation of these peat bogs - climate change, flooding and water pollution. These bogs act like giant sponges so, as they get drained and dry, the rainwater they once captured runs off the moors instead, flooding downstream cities and towns and causing millions of pounds in damage and disruption. Dried-out peat also crumbles into the water being drained off by the grips. Experts at Durham University estimate that 15 tonnes of peat are being lost from every square kilometre of bog each year, running off into the rivers. Over the last 30 years, Northumbrian Water has calculated, the amount of discolouration and "turbidity" in the water has risen by a third. The water company now spends £4m each year treating water from the Pennines to make it suitable for drinking.
And, in one of those ironic twists straight out of Yes, Minister, these problems were originally caused by the Government. After the war, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries wanted to maximise meat production and believed draining the moors would promote sheep farming. Through to the 1970s, it paid grants of up to 70 per cent for moor owners to cut grips - creating hundreds of thousands of kilometres of these drains.
These hills have another, less savoury, reputation. In one area to the north of Bollihope where the moors are effectively(omega) "farmed" for grouse, the RSPB has recorded a cluster of cases where rare birds of prey and owls - birds known collectively as "raptors" - have been illegally shot, poisoned or had their nests destroyed. A dozen cases of "raptor persecution" have been confirmed or suspected over the past decade - including poisoned buzzards, illegal pole traps set for hen harriers, owls killed in traps and a cache of poison found. Indeed, the RSPB has recorded 56 "confirmed and probable" cases of raptor persecution on the moors within a 50km radius of Barnard Castle in Teesdale since 1995, grouped heavily around grouse moors.
These cases, argues the RSPB, are evidence of a culture of indifference, even hostility, towards wider environmental objectives among many grouse moor managers. "It's outrageous that there's zero tolerance of raptors on some of these estates," says Julian Hughes, the society's head of species conservation. "There's no doubt that the right kind of grouse moor management, and a degree of legal predator control, can benefit birds such as curlews and lapwing, but there's no place in the 21st century for this level of law-breaking."
Sir Martin Doughty, the chairman of English Nature and its new successor agency, Natural England, which begins work this October, insists that he remains optimistic that his organisation will hit its PSA target by 2010. But to do so, English Nature faces a substantial challenge: to persuade grouse moor owners and sheep farmers to dramatically improve their management of the moors - abandoning their intensive burning traditions, cutting sheep numbers, blocking up the "grips" to allow bogs to re-emerge, and replacing the common heather loved by grouse with a richer, more diverse plant life.
Only two years ago, English Nature officials were privately worried there would be a stand-up fight with the shooting lobby over the state of the moors. But that emerging crisis was allayed last October when the agency agreed a compromise strategy with the influential and robustly-led Moorland Association, the moor owners' organisation. Simon Bostock, the association's chairman, speaks confidently of a "working partnership" with English Nature which will preserve "a viable working estate, as well as the livelihoods of those who live there, and the wildlife that thrives upon it". But so far, only 13 moors have been signed up to the new agreements by English Nature - it needs to involve up to 150 to meet its targets.
One estate in County Durham is emerging as a model for the kind of pragmatic, open-minded and intelligent style which Sir Martin craves - one of the most famous shooting estates of all, Wemmergill near the Teesdale market town of Barnard Castle. It is here that John F Kennedy, King Juan Carlos of Spain, Prince Charles and Edward VII have all shot.
Wemmergill straddles two moors which make up the Lune Forest SSSI, a site protected specially for its rich range of heathers, rare moorland plants such as spring gentian, and its dwarf shrubs, such as cloudberry and bilberry, as well as birds such as merlin, golden plover, dunlin and snipe. A key part of the North Pennines Special Protected Area, it is also an estate which encapsulates many of the historic problems facing grouse moors. Like most, it has suffered decades of benign neglect when maximising grouse numbers was the priority. Sheep were grazed at unsustainable levels. Roads, bridges and even the homes to the estate's gamekeepers fell into disrepair.
But in January this year, the estate and its tenant farms were bought outright for £5.25m by a self-made pubs entrepreneur called Michael Cannon, 65, from the south west. Cannon had already, in 2004, spent £4m acquiring the shooting rights to the estate and since then has again opened his chequebook, spending £3m renovating the cottages, buildings and roads, hired two extra 'keepers, and added a discrete helicopter landing pad.
At Cannon's instigation, the estate is finalising what may become a landmark deal with English Nature, to agree an ecologically-sustainable system of heather burning, efforts to cut grouse numbers, a programme to block up the "grips" and renewed efforts to plant a wider range of indigenous shrubs and trees. He has hired naturalists to survey the estate, and produce new management plans.
Their negotiations are being closely observed. Last year, Wemmergill challenged English Nature's decision to impose tough conditions on its heather burning regime by appealing against them to Margaret Beckett, the then Environment Secretary. But both sides are now talking amicably and if this deal works, it could help English Nature and the Moorland Association coax more sceptical owners into saving their own moors.
Richard Johnson, a lawyer and director of the estate's management company, says Cannon "loves turning around things. In the same way he's made his millions from acquiring run-down pub chains, making them very profitable, and selling them, he likes to modernise grouse moors. He gets a buzz out of doing things which people thought wasn't possible."
A remarkable map of Wemmergill underscores the scale of the task. It picks out every grip on the moors in light blue - all 67,000km of them - which create an intricate, tightly-packed mesh of ditches. John Barrett, one of English Nature's senior officials in the north east, says Wemmergill exhibits classic signs of over-grazing by sheep, and over-burning.
"It's not in a healthy state," he says. "It's all about balance when it comes to moorland management and it's not about eliminating one particular habitat to the benefit of another. It's getting the balance right which is critical." Nonetheless, he remains optimistic about a "growing environmental awareness" among moor owners. "There's a lot of new money being invested in grouse moors now and the people investing the money are doing it because they've a passion for grouse shooting, a passion for moors and a passion for other birds. It's like your own back garden: you've invested money in it, you enjoy looking at it and you enjoying being in it."
The Wemmergill people broadly agree. "Nobody can buy a grouse moor and expect it to wash its face. It's impossible," Johnson remarks, bluntly. "I think that there's an acknowledgement by any moor owner that if you're buying a SSSI, a Special Area of Conservation or a Special Protected Area, then there are restrictions. This is accepted at the outset and we work within the parameters of that. We're an area of outstanding natural beauty as well. I don't see it as a conflict."
And John Pinkney, 34, is well-placed to judge results. A local man, he first began at Wemmergill aged 11 as a "beater". He started working on the estate aged 16, and was promoted under Cannon's ownership to become one of two head-keepers. "Gone are the days when we just go out and do what we want to do, and we've got to live with that," he says. "We won't get it our own way, so if we can sit down and talk to these folk and get some kind of compromise, we will achieve what we set out to achieve in a round-about fashion."
Sir Martin Doughty will be pleased - and relieved - to hear it. The Chancellor's clock is ticking.