A not so glorious 12th looms in the North

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The Independent Online
AFTER losses at Lloyd's and the recession, the final blow has come for some of Britain's landed gentry: a bad year for grouse. Appalling weather in May on top of severe infection of birds by a parasitical worm has reduced broods so severely that shooting in many parts of England and some parts of Scotland is expected to be a quarter of the usual level, and may be cancelled altogether.

Estate owners in the north Pennines face losses of up to pounds 750,000 for the shooting alone, and hoteliers may lose through cancellations. Estate owners get pounds 70- pounds 80 for each brace of birds shot - a common way to sell shooting today.

The birds suffered badly in mid-May when 12 inches of snow in the north Pennines was followed by frost and four inches of rain, all within 72 hours. The Pennines north of the A66, particularly Northumberland and Durham, were worst affected, but the bad weather extended into the Scottish lowlands and parts of the Highlands. The southern Pennines were spared the snow but suffered from the rain which in itself has reduced broods.

Lindsay Waddell, head gamekeeper at Lord Barnard's estate at Raby, Co Durham, said: 'We probably had the worst weather for mid-May in living memory. The bulk of the grouse had laid their eggs and were sitting on them when the snow fell. And the following few days should have been the peak time for hatching.

'Many of the birds deserted their nests, forced to leave by the sheer weight of the snow. All the moorland birds have done poorly this year - merlins, curlew, dunlin, golden plover and ducks.'

The worst-hit areas are Northumberland, where snow lasted for three days, and in the Scottish hills around Tomatin, near Inverness. Surveys by the Game Conservancy in parts of the Highlands, the Borders and the Dales have found better than expected numbers of grouse but it has yet to survey the worst-hit areas.

In the central Pennines, from Skipton up to about Hexham, grouse flocks are suffering from a disease, strongylosis, caused by a worm. At the end of last season, after several very good years, the moors were over-populated with grouse, and the nematode worm spread in epidemic fashion. A lot of birds weakened by the infection died last winter or were in too poor a condition to breed well.

Dr Peter Hudson, manager of Upland Research for the Game Conservancy in the Cairngorms, said: 'The parasites inhabit a part of the gut which gives the bird its flavour when it is hung. I find the infection improves the taste of the bird.'

Sir Anthony Milbank, chairman of the Moorland Association, a club for gentlemen with upland estates, thought this a great joke. 'I've never heard that said before. I think he must be pulling your leg.' He added: 'Some estates may be in financial difficulty at the end of this season. Grouse shooting provides the entire income for some estates. Without it they can't afford to manage the estate.'

However, Dr Hudson thinks some gamekeepers are being too pessimistic. 'An old gamekeeper came to see me after the May storms,' he said. 'He could remember bad May storms in the 1930s and 1960s and said that the grouse were scarcely affected.'

(Photograph omitted)