Country Matters: Green shoots on Glorious Twelfth

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The Independent Online
NO VOLLEYS of shots will rattle out over Ireland Moor, in Powys, next Thursday; but the Glorious Twelfth will go unsaluted there for a most positive reason. Unlike in the north of England, where grouse prospects are exceedingly poor, the stock of birds on this one Welsh hill is better than it has been for years; yet the owners are relaxed and enlightened enough not to blast off on the opening day of the season.

The rescue of Ireland Moor, which rises gently to a spine 1,700 feet above sea-level, is a small classic of conservation. In Victorian and Edwardian times the ground was managed for grouse, and the record bag, shot on 12 August 1904, was more than 100 brace.

Stocks remained high during the Thirties, but then a decline set in. The owners could not afford to go on spending money on gamekeepers, with the inevitable result that the habitat became degraded: lack of burning (which rejuvenates heather), over-grazing by sheep, invasion by bracken and proliferation of vermin all combined to make life difficult for grouse - not only on this hill, but on most of the mountains in Central Wales.

Nevertheless, when 8,000 acres of land above Painscastle came on the market in 1988, there was still enough heather left to light a gleam in the eye of Stephen Marsh-Smith, a dentist who works in Bristol and has a weekend home in the Wye Valley south of Builth Wells. Together with a group of friends, he bought most of the moor, and after further buying and selling of land, seven of them ended up with 7,000 acres.

They were all keen shooting men, and their aim was to re-create a viable grouse moor; but they faced formidable problems. The hill was swarming with vermin - principally crows, magpies and foxes; the remaining heather was being eaten away by sheep belonging to all the surrounding farmers, who have common grazing rights on the hill, and bracken was advancing every year.

Undeterred, they took on a gamekeeper, preferring a local, untrained man, who knew the area and its people, to a professional brought in from outside. They also began systematic burning - fire being the classic management tool on moors, and in many forests abroad.

Soon they found that one burn merely took the top off the ancient, rank heather and left a carpet of dead moss which prevented regeneration. Then one day, by accident, they set fire to an already burnt area for a second time, and this did the trick. On the cleared ground, new heather began to shoot again within weeks, providing the young shoots that form grouse's staple diet, and greatly accelerating the process of restoration.

They also attacked the bracken, which is poisonous to animals, and has only a limited use when cut and dried for winter bedding. Spraying by helicopter, they tackled 1,000 acres a year, and pulled up by hand any shoots that managed to survive the chemical bombardment. The heather - whose seeds can survive underground for at least 50 years - soon began to recolonise cleared areas.

On the vermin front, they launched an all-out assault against carrion crows, mainly with the new Larsen traps, which use live birds as decoys. Last year alone they killed more than 1,000, as well as 300 magpies. They also eliminated more than 200 foxes on the moor and around its 33-mile boundary.

The effect of all this activity has been spectacular. The appearance of the hill has changed sharply for the better, with grand sweeps of purple heather in some places, and in others a mosaic of greens, made up of new patches at various stages of growth.

Numbers of grouse have risen steeply, as have those of other ground-nesting birds: two years ago only one pair of curlews was recorded, this year there were 14. Smaller birds such as wheatears and pipits are also flourishing, freed from the menace of the crows, which persistently ate their eggs.

Such improvements do not come cheap. The budget for last year was pounds 32,000, which meant that the cost of every brace of grouse shot was pounds 800, or more than 10 times the average of pounds 72 for the north of England.

Financial pressure was eased slightly by the winning of three conservation awards - two from the Shooting Times magazine and one from Laurent Perrier, the champagne firm - which together brought in pounds 8,000, and also by a grant of pounds 4,000 for bracken spraying from the Countryside Commission for Wales (CCW). Even so, it is lucky that Mr Marsh-Smith and his friends are not commercially minded.

One of the most encouraging features of their project is the way in which outside bodies have given them support.

At first the CCW (or rather, the Nature Conservancy Council, as it then was) opposed the idea of burning on the grounds that it was potentially harmful. Now that the moor owners have demonstrated how much good it does, the CCW is adopting burning into its management plans elsewhere.

Ireland Moor also has been declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and the owners regard themselves as working in partnership with the CCW, which monitors what they are doing but does not interfere.

Similarly, a good relationship has been established with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which now accepts that control of predatory species is beneficial, and that the Larsen trap is a humane means of carrying it out.

Local farmers at first regarded the newcomers with suspicion, but now welcome their activities, not least the cull of foxes, which saves a good many lambs in the spring. Encouraged by the positive attitude of the moor owners, the farmers are becoming more responsible about the problem of over-grazing, and are putting fewer sheep on the hill.

As Mr Marsh-Smith remarks: 'Five years ago all these parties were at war with each other. The RSPB had no idea what needed to be done, and grouse-moor owners were regarded as people who killed everything indiscriminately.'

To prove how out of date this claim now is, he can show visitors ravens, buzzards, merlins and even (with luck) the peregrine falcons which this year nested on the moor, or one of the red kites that occasionally come down from the colony at Rhayader, Powys.

Plenty of difficulties remain, among them invasion by members of the public, who will not stick to the numerous rights of way but wander everywhere, letting dogs run wild and (worse) starting uncontrolled fires.

On the day I walked over the moor last week, we found a man who had driven up to erect a 20- foot radio aerial so that he could chat to a friend on Dartmoor.

Mr Marsh-Smith and his partners will certainly hold two or three shoots this year, and enjoy them; but they are not out to make big bags.

If they simply wanted to kill grouse, they would walk them up and shoot them over pointers, which is relatively easy. They prefer to drive the coveys over butts, which makes them far more difficult to shoot, and also to wait until September, when the birds are more mature. Their aim is not short-term gain, but the long-term improvement of the moor.

For years shooting men have been contending that their activities benefit conservation, both aesthetically, and in terms of the number of species which thrive if land is sensibly managed; but nowhere can that truth be more apparent than on the long, heathery spine of Ireland Moor.