Dog days on the grouse moors: Bad weather and parasites make the 12th less than glorious for the moorland shoots. Oliver Gillie reports

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FEATHER, Flight and Smudge, three 'Sprocker' spaniels, galloped over the moor, twisting and turning through the heather in search of grouse. They put up a few birds this week at Barningham, Co Durham, but not enough to suggest any chance of a good shoot today, the start of the season.

Sir Anthony Milbank, owner of Barningham Moor and chairman of the Moorland Association which represents owners of upland estates, was out inspecting the grouse with his Sprockers, crossbred Springer and Cocker Spaniels. They were overfed and under-exercised while he was on holiday abroad and so were eager to run freely over the moor. But they could grow fatter still because this year they will not be getting their usual exercise raising grouse on the moor.

Sir Anthony will not be shooting grouse this year and nor will many other estate owners. He will content himself with shooting pigeons and rabbits which are pests on his estate. Inexperienced guests have mistaken pigeon for grouse at his table, but there is no mistaking the difference for the sportsman.

'This is a unique sport. We provide the thrill of shooting really wild birds in beautiful countryside,' Sir Anthony said. 'You can't do it anywhere else. Pheasant shooting is completely artificial nowadays - all the birds are reared.'

Bad weather in the spring when the grouse were nesting has drastically reduced the number of birds on the moor and so Sir Anthony is having to conserve his stock. 'Normally at this time of year we get coveys of grouse with an average of seven or eight birds,' he said. 'But this year there have been a lot of single adult birds. That shows that all the young and one adult out of a mating pair have been wiped out.'

In 1988, Sir Anthony and his guests shot 2,000 brace (pair) of birds, at Barningham, worth about pounds 75 a brace today. That is the price each 'gun' pays for the sport and they do not even keep the grouse they have shot.

'We give them a brace each and sell the rest. But still the economics of it all just does not work,' Sir Anthony said. 'We were hit by the strongylosis parasite after 1988. It killed hundreds of birds within a few weeks. We were picking them up in piles and burning them. Last year we thought we were beginning to see a recovery. We got 300 brace and now this has happened.'

Sir Anthony has to employ two gamekeepers to patrol the fells killing predators: magpies and crows which eat the eggs, foxes and weasels which attack the young birds. And when there is no shooting, tips earned on the big day are lost, not only by keepers, but by the beaters, the loaders, who hold reserve guns and put in fresh cartridges, and the dogmen, who with their retrievers bring in the fallen birds.

This year has been bad for the majority of grouse moors in England and many in Scotland. In England only the Trough of Bowland and parts of the North Yorkshire moors - just inland of Whitby and Scarborough - seem to have escaped the bad weather which killed off the grouse elsewhere.

Sir Anthony hopes that he has 300 breeding pairs left on the estate to restore stocks to their previous level. This year it will be pigeon or nothing for guests at Barningham Park. 'Pigeon get a very good diet in this part of the country and they taste excellent. My son shot 20 last night so we have plenty in the deep freeze.'

(Photograph omitted)