The grouse moors' annual shot in the arm: Thursday is the Glorious Twelfth. Jonathan Young defends the guns from their Islington-think detractors

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The Independent Online
All plus-fours and pre-prandial snifters served outside by starchy butlers: this is the Wooster world of the Twelfth, when the seriously tweeded forsake the creaking club chairs of St James's for heather-topped butts and the start of the grouse season.

As with most caricatures, there is an trace of truth. PWGMs - Persons With Grouse Moors - are often from families with armorial bearings as old as the hills. And if you want to buy your way in, it's expensive: to shoot a brace of driven grouse on a top-class moor costs pounds 70. A goodish day, say 120 brace, will relieve a team of guns of pounds 8,400 - a steady pounds 1,050 each.

Add to this heady brew of land and riches the whiff of small shot as another grouse tumbles into the heather and one is left with the perfect cause for the 'animal activist' (or saboteur, depending on your viewpoint). For this the activists should be deeply grateful. South Africa is being sorted out, Greenham Common is now Cruiseless - what would a nice, middle-class rebel-without-a-pause do without field sports? A couple of right-on years of 'sabbing' at university before the pinstripe and accountancy exams beckon. Just the job.

There is, however, one ideological problem. Grouse shooting saves grouse. Worse, for the 2CV classes, it preserves a whole upland environment and platoons of ground-nesting species such as golden plover, merlins and curlew.

Grouse rely on heather for their bed and breakfast. The young shoots feed them and the older, leggy growth gives them somewhere to nest and protection from predators, such as peregrines. But it is a declining habitat. Since the Forties, the heather acreage has fallen by 40 per cent, to 700,000 acres in England and Wales and 2.5 million acres in Scotland. It has disappeared under blocks of conifers and ever-grazing sheep.

From the city it is easy to decry this and ignore the perspective of the hill communities, who need the jobs that forestry and sheep provide. For heather to survive this economic competition it must hold its own as a cash crop, whose living harvest is the grouse.

Unlike most produce, though, grouse cannot be grown artificially. If they are to thrive in the wild, their upland habitat must be kept in prime condition. So every year grouse-moor gamekeepers burn the heather in long strips, giving the ideal mix of young food shoots and older heather for shelter and nesting. This playing with fire is a hazardous art, requiring many skilled - and expensive - hands if a major conflagration is to be avoided.

Grouse need more than good food and lodgings, however. They have to have protection. The birds are a favourite food of a host of predators, especially foxes and crows, whose numbers are kept abnormally high on a man-made diet of carrion mutton and new-born lambs. If grouse and other ground-nesting birds are to thrive, these predators must be controlled.

Sensible conservation bodies, such as English Nature and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), take similar action in other environmentally sensitive areas. English Nature, for example, is undertaking rigorous fox control to protect the tern colony at Scolt Head in Norfolk.

On the moors, the conservationists are happy for the moor owners to pick up the bill and undertake the work. Mike Everett, the RSPB's press officer, explains: 'There is no doubt that the effective management of heather moorland for grouse shooting is to the benefit of many other ground-nesting birds.'

This view is emphasised by Lindsey Waddell, chairman of the Moorland Gamekeepers' Association: 'Many of the upland breeding species which are of international importance are dependent upon the habitat produced by management practices funded solely by grouse shooting.'

Even the Ramblers' Association, not noted for its cosy relationship with landowners, supports the sport. Dave Morris, its Scottish officer, says: 'The well-managed grouse moor, characterised by a burnt patchwork, is unique. No other upland area in the world has such a landscape.'

The League Against Cruel Sports states, blankly, that it is opposed to the shooting of grouse, but offers no thoughts as to how the moorlands could be maintained or who would provide jobs for those who do not share its London environs but live on and off the land. The league proclaims against the 'half million grouse which are shot annually' - a meaty statistic (though not as meaty, perhaps, as the millions of chickens whose destiny is to be finger lickin' good or nuggeted). Is there really any need to shoot so many?

The answer, economically and environmentally, is yes. People do not pay large sums to shoot two or three grouse. Big grouse-shooting days pay the bills needed to maintain a moorland estate. Lord Peel, a council member of the Game Conservancy and the owner of the Gunnerside estate, one of the most productive grouse moors in North Yorkshire, says: 'If shooting were to stop, the economic consequences would be disastrous, as virtually all moor owners rely now on the letting of their grouse shooting to cover the costs of maintaining their estates.'

Finances aside, grouse stocks are improved by shooting. Grouse are short-lived, with annual mortality averaging 65 per cent, whether they are shot or not. They succumb to predation and disease, particularly strongylosis, the infestation by a parasitic worm, Trichostrongylus tenuis. These are always present in grouse, but their numbers soar to lethal levels when grouse become overcrowded, following good breeding years and mild winters. The only way to prevent this is to cull them heavily in the autumn.

Even with the best management, grouse populations tend to be regulated by disease and bad weather, and follow a four-year cycle of abundance dwindling into decline. This spring was disastrous for north English moors, with grouse being buried under some very unseasonal snow. As a consequence, many moor owners will have had to cancel their shooting days and live off the income generated by the last two successful seasons. None the less, all the expense of managing the heather remains, to be met out of the funds from past, successful seasons.

It is a curious paradox that Islington-think applauds aboriginal hunters and the preservation of their environment but condemns the practice in Britain. Perhaps the Wooster togs are the snag - all that hairy tweed and polished boots. But the real problem is not that the grouse-shooters are too damn smart but that their opponents are far too slow.

For them, then, let Sir Anthony Milbank, chairman of the Moorland Association, spell it out: 'Red and black grouse are now only to be found in any numbers in the world where the active management associated with grouse-shooting takes place. In most other places they are extinct or in serious decline.'

Jonathan Young is editor of 'The Field'.

(Photograph omitted)