The weather and the heather
Grouse seasons live and die by the elements and a careful mixture of conditions is vital. By Patrick Laurie.
It’s unlikely to be a vintage year, but in an era of constantly broken records, this is a chance to take stock.
It’s still hard to say how the grouse season looks. All eyes are usually on the hatch of young grouse which takes place in Galloway in the last week of May. This can be a useful reminder for me, since the peak hatch often takes place around the time of my wife’s birthday, and the emergence of young birds is often a helpful hint. Bad weather around the hatch date can play havoc with tiny chicks, but I wonder if a period of cold, dry weather earlier in the year will prove to play a role in the success of the season.
Hen grouse often reach peak breeding conditions in early April after almost a month of intensive feeding on cottongrass flowers. Birds will often travel long distances to feed on these nutrient-packed buds, and it is surprising what an impact they can have when they focus their attentions on a particular area of cottongrass. Walking at Howden Moor in the Peak District with Geoff Eyre in 2011, I was shown a patch of heavily grazed cottongrass and couldn’t believe that the shredded vegetation had been caused by grouse alone.
Cottongrass tips are packed with nutrients which promote good body condition and fertility, and a good “moss crop” can determine the subsequent success of the season. This year, a stubborn east wind blew the moss into a dry crisp for several consecutive weeks, and the cottongrass flowers put on a poor performance. I often found clumps of flowers which had been dessicated into dry, papery whisps, and the moss was otherwise dry and empty. The ground was so dry that most of our breeding waders vanished without nesting, and it will be interesting to see if this will have knockon effects in subsequent years. Deprived of their early season boost, it may be that our grouse hens were not in perfect breeding condition, and they may have ended up laying smaller clutches of poorer quality eggs. If this has been the case, the weather conditions around the hatch date become less significant and the prospect of a “boom” seems unlikely.
We were lucky to have a warm, dry hatch when it finally came, but the rain was still lacking. I usually cut a few bags of peat off our hill ground when the weather allows, and the black blocks of winter fuel take several weeks to dry in a normal year. I was astounded to find several peats were ready to burn after just a few days of warmth and steady winds, and the face of the peat hagg I cut from was soon scarred with deep cracks and crevices.
In all this dry weather, many of the budding sedges which support female grouse through the incubation period and into the early days of motherhood had withered up and dried, and there was very little in the way of insect life for young chicks. In fact, walking across the moss felt like crunching through a tray of cornflakes for several days after the hatch, and despite a few small hatches of craneflies, pickings looked decidedly slim. When the rain came, it fell in steely curtains which flooded the ditches and lay in puddles on the baked peat. Many chicks will have been caught out and washed away, but we have been fortunate to have been spared the kind of dreich, continually cold conditions which can really cause chaos amongst delicate young broods.
Grouse are extraordinarily resilient. Of course they are most productive when the seasons align with the weather and everything works perfectly, but they are quick to make the best of any situation. Hens will sit again and may lay clutches of eggs long into the summer. Under proper management, the current generation of grouse is largely free from traditional constraints such as ticks and worms. Hens are fit enough and willing to lay eggs well after midsummer, and it’s no great surprise to find surprisingly small cheepers coming through the line on early driven days.
Now that we have freed ourselves of the traditional “boom and bust” of grouse cycles, it would take a particularly shocking summer to flatten grouse numbers back to a traditional low. More often than not, gamekeepers and sporting agents will be making decisions on how best to use 2017’s crop of birds rather than rushing to panic stations. It’s unlikely to be a vintage year, but in an era of constantly broken records, perhaps this is a chance to sit back and take stock.