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Return of the grouse on the Welsh hills of Pale Moor

What happened in Wales on the Glorious 12th? Not a great deal, and certainly nothing much at Pale Moor in North Wales. At the start of the grouse-shooting season, gamekeeper Craig Jones listened in vain for the sound of grouse - and other birds. All that could be seen were crows circling beyond the range of the shotgun he carried.

"The air should be alive with birdsong, including the rapid-fire call of grouse," he said. "But listen, there's complete silence."

Yet an unusual alliance of conservationists and field sports enthusiasts is working on a five-year project to re-introduce the red grouse across thousands of acres of heather moorland in Wales. Other moorland species, such as the black grouse, golden plover and lapwing, will also benefit if the collaboration between the Countryside Council for Wales, the Game Conservancy Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is successful.

And the showpiece for the newly-formed Welsh Grouse Project is the 8,000- acre Pale Moor, near Bala, Gwynedd. Here it is hoped that grouse will survive if moorland is properly managed.

Paradoxically, if the sound of shotguns are again heard on Welsh moors the project will have been a success. For the money raised from the bird's popularity as a quarry for shooting will help underwrite the conservation work.

Years of neglect have taken their toll at Pale Moor: the heather has been allowed to grow without regular burning and is now the wrong height for many bird species; the population of predators has gone unchecked; and there are too many sheep being grazed.

Controlling predators is a priority. A trap set high on the moor contains the latest batch of crows to fall prey to the new gamekeeper and they will be humanely dispatched, as will the foxes that come within sight of his gun.

A quarter of a century ago Wales had a higher density of red grouse than Scotland, but predation coupled with overgrazing and disease has reduced the population to the point of extinction. There are believed to be fewer than 1,000 breeding pairs left. Mr Jones has a faded black-and-white picture from the turn of the century that shows 12 gamekeepers on the Pale Moor preparing to set out to organise a day's shoot for the landowner and his guests.

A walk across the moor reveals 50-year-old shooting butts now falling into disrepair where a dozen or more guns could be comfortably accommodated. Winston Churchill used to shoot here and locals can remember 40 brace being taken in a day. Before Mr Jones's recent arrival, it was 20 years since the last gamekeeper was employed here.

"This is one of Wales's last wildernesses," Mr Jones explained. "When it goes, some of the last of the ground nesting birds in the country go with it. It has to be managed to survive. For example, there is only one pair of curlew on 4,500 acres."

His sense of commitment is shared by Ian Lindsay, co-ordinator of the Welsh Grouse Project. "We hope to show that the objectives of sporting management, conservation and upland farming need not be incompatible," Mr Lindsay said. "It is all a question of balance. Over the last 40 years the balance has swung in favour of agriculture."

He explained there are now no large, formal grouse shoots in Wales and it is unlikely they would ever return. Yet they hope to raise grouse numbers to a level where field-sports enthusiasts can enjoy their sport.

"In Scotland, continued investment in keepers and moorland management has maintained viable grouse populations," said Mr Lindsay. "In Wales, this tradition has, with very few exceptions, been lost, resulting in a downward spiral of fewer grouse, fewer keepers and less management. Hand-in-hand with this has been the decline in the quality of heather upland."

The Welsh Grouse Project will study grouse numbers and research into specific problems, such as bracken, which is overrunning the heather moorlands. Blood tests on grouse shot in the Berwyn Mountains, close to the Pale Moor, showed high levels of louping-ill, one of the two major illnesses affecting the birds. It can cause 80 per cent mortality in chicks and research on a cure is under way.

"If all goes well there will be a sufficient population of grouse built up in five years," said Craig Jones. "That is the challenge for me. What makes it all the more rewarding is that I am helping restore a moor that is an asset for Wales."