The weather and the heather

Grouse sea­sons live and die by the ele­ments and a care­ful mix­ture of con­di­tions is vi­tal. By Pa­trick Lau­rie.

Shooting Gazette - - Moor­land fore­cast -

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.

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