Worm turns Glorious 12th into day of quiet despair

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Grouse stocks have plummeted by 50 to 90 per cent from last year's record-breaking season, with the loss to the rural economy estimated to be in excess of £11.25m, the Moorland Association says.

Hotels, pubs and game dealers all face losses as in some parts of the North Pennines, especially Cumbria and Northumberland, very few, if any, upland estates will get the season under way this week. Some areas are facing their worst season since 1950.

The problem is that the birds have hit a low point in their population cycle, which lasts over several years of boom and bust, and is largely governed by parasites. Last winter was warm and wet, ideal conditions for the strongyle worm, a parasite in the gut of the grouse that can kill large numbers of the birds.

Simon Bostock, the Moorland Association chairman, said: "This year, some counters have reported seeing fewer than 10 birds in areas where they would normally see more than 300. For the most severely affected moors it could take a good few years for the population to recover sufficiently to start shooting again."

The weather during the breeding season is thought to have contributed to losses of adults and their chicks, with cold, sharp showers and even torrential downpours and hail storms in May and June. On the moors above Hawnby in North Yorkshire that flooded in June, many birds would have been washed away.

The picture is somewhat better in Scotland, which has about 450 active grouse moors (compared to about 180 in England). Some estates are likely to have a successful season, although in other places grouse numbers are down, the Scottish branch of the Game Conservancy Trust says.

The red grouse, Lagopus lagopus scoticus, is found nowhere else in the world, although it is a sub-species of the willow grouse which occurs across Europe, Asia and North America.

Grouse cannot be reared in captivity and then released, as are pheasants and partridges. They are thus much more subject to the vagaries of nature, and vulnerable to predators, from crows and magpies to foxes and stoats, diseases of the heather on the young shoots of which they feed, and parasites.

Argument has gone on for years about the conservation benefits - or drawbacks - of managing heather moorland for grouse. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds maintains that successfully keeping grouse moors often involves the killing of one of Britain's rarest birds of prey, the hen harrier, which can take young grouse where available as a major item in its diet.

A study several years ago appeared to show that the presence of hen harriers makes a grouse moor unviable as an economic concern - and it is certainly the case that there are very few hen harriers visible on grouse moors in Britain. On the other hand, some conservationists accept that carefully managing moorland to maintain grouse populations can have considerable benefits for other moorland-nesting birds, such as golden plover and curlew. More than 120 different bird species were recorded on areas managed for grouse shooting on the North York Moors this year, 51 per cent of England's total breeding and over-wintering species.

The survey revealed that these moors were providing habitat for 21 birds on the Red List of Conservation Concern and 56 on the Amber List.

"Grouse-moor management has a huge knock-on benefit for a range of important and rare wildlife, while providing a real boost to the rural economy," said Jim Knight, the minister for Rural Affairs. "It is sad that the enormous effort put into managing the habitat for red grouse will not be rewarded this year."