Country Matters: A moorland fight to the death

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IT SEEMS curious that a man with a particular loathing of bracken should be called Fearn - but there it is. On Tuesday, in the splendour of the Vintners' Hall in London, Jack Fearn, a 63-year-old electrician-turned-gamekeeper from Lancashire, will receive the pounds 3,000 first prize in the annual batch of awards for wild game conservation dispensed by the champagne firm Laurent-Perrier. And no small part of his endeavour has been the destruction of bracken on his favourite moor.

In a good crop of entries for the awards, his was outstanding, not least because it represented intense physical effort on the part of himself and a few dedicated colleagues. With his rugged face, his big hard hands and his flat northern vowels, Jack is a true man of the moors, and a strong charge of his character lit up his Laurent-Perrier entry form.

This recorded that the Higher House and Baitings Moorland Conservation Society was founded in 1983, when 22 enthusiasts met to discuss the decline of their local moor in the south-west Pennines, on the borders of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The aims of the society included the improvement of wildlife habitat, the protection of endangered species, vermin control, the suppression of bracken and, most important of all, regeneration of the heather.

Under the section headed 'Project Duration' Jack entered 'Ongoing until death', and his report emphasised that all the work done over the past nine years had been carried out by volunteers. All too often,

at the prospect of hard labour, assistants had vanished like smoke, leaving him and his founder-colleague, Howard Dean, a dye-house worker, to battle on alone.

In a novel attempt to recruit extra hands, Jack took to photographing and apprehending poachers, whom he would give the option of putting in a few hours on the moor or of being reported to the authorities. Unfortunately, as he remarked, 'the majority of those caught seem to have a greater fear of work than they do of the police'.

When he asked a local bank manager 'cum twitcher, trespasser and general nuisance in the grouse-hatching period', to stick to the footpaths, the man retaliated by applying for permission to roam at large. He was told that he might well be granted leave if he put in an hour or two on bracken control - since when he has been 'considering the offer'. In his submission Jack noted drily: 'I do not think we will see him again.'

When the volunteers first went into action they faced a daunting challenge. Half a century of neglect had reduced the 6,000-acre moor to a sorry state. Most of the heather was rank with age - and therefore useless to grouse, which feed on young shoots - and large areas had been invaded by bracken, which is not only poisonous to animals, but produces spores carcinogenic in humans. The hill ground was alive with foxes, crows, magpies and human predators, many of whom were shooting without permission.

Vermin control, heather burning and bracken cutting became the order of the day - and Jack himself has laboured tirelessly at these back-breaking tasks. The burning is a skilled job, for the aim is to renew small patches and strips in rotation, and not to let big fires blaze out of hand. The climate on the Lancashire hills is so wet that in a normal season only five or six days are dry enough for burning; but the winter of 1992-93 was exceptional, and controlled burning took place on 31 days, usually with three men in attendance, sometimes with eight.

The destruction of bracken is still more laborious: it can be sprayed with a special chemical, Asulox, but this is expensive, and the cheapest way of dealing with it is to cut it by hand in June and then, as it starts to shoot, to hit it again some five weeks later. Under persistent assault of this kind, continued over several seasons, it gradually dies off, allowing useful species such as heather, bilberry, crowberry and grass to recolonise the ground.

One day, as Jack was scything, his persistence led to what may prove an important discovery. When a deluge of rain came on, he thought, 'Oh, sod it. I'm wet anyway. I may as well get soaked'. So he carried on in the downpour, and when he came to study the patch of bracken a few weeks later, he noticed that re-growth was much weaker than he had expected. Deliberately repeating the experiment on another wet day, he achieved the same result. This led him to wonder whether the rain had diluted the sap in the cut stalks, and prevented it from congealing, so that the plants had more or less bled to death. He passed his findings on to the Ministry of Agriculture, but has yet to hear any official reaction.

In the vital matter of gaining control of humans, the conservation society made

a breakthrough when Jeff Heyes, a local farmer, decided to adopt a no-work, no-shoot policy on the moor, which he leased from the Yorkshire Water Authority. Until then a syndicate of 16 men had shot over the ground: when all were ordered to work, only three turned out. The rest were fined pounds 25 apiece - the money was spent on Asulox - and, when they still refused to lift a hand, had their shooting permission rescinded.

The water authority then awarded the sporting rights to the pioneers of the conservation society, thus enabling them to declare a ban on the shooting of golden plover and snipe, and to defer the start of each grouse season by three weeks, from 12 August to the beginning of September, to give birds a better chance.

All this work has had a pronounced effect. The moor is now a mosaic of heather patches in various stages of growth - bright green, grey- green, purple - and, even with moderate shooting, grouse bags have increased nine-fold.

To walk the ground with Jack Fearn is a delight, for you are in the company of a man who has devoted himself to, and put his stamp on, a patch of wild country in a way that few individuals achieve.

A keen dog man, he once went in for what the Irish

call 'droppers' - cross-bred pointer-labradors - but now specialises in Irish setters, and constantly has one with him. Although still doing some electrical work, he has largely allowed the gamekeeper in his nature to take control, and it is on the moor that he is in his element.

Here, as a teenaged poacher, he learnt to imitate the calls of grouse, so as to lure the birds to him - not just the easy go- back, go-back of the male, but the more subtle and less obvious squeak of the hen. Here, rather than go to the vet, he shot and buried a favourite dog whose days were done. Here - everywhere - are new patches of healthy heather which has regrown and flourished on the areas that he burnt whenever he could snatch a moment.

The robustness of his enthusiasm shone out in the little tailpiece with which he concluded his entry form; the story of Paddy, an Irish builder who joined the war on bracken and was spotted by a passer-by.

Lady Hiker to Paddy: 'Where did you learn to scythe bracken?'

Paddy: 'In the Sahara desert.'

Lady Hiker: 'But there is no bracken in the Sahara.'

Paddy: 'No, Mam - not now, there ain't'