Joe Dim­bleby speaks to a game­keeper who is work­ing on an ex­cit­ing project to re­store the hills of Powys to their for­mer grouse glory

Sporting Shooter - - Contents -

David Thomas is a game­keeper on Beacon Hill moor – an area of 5,000 acres of Crown Es­tate near Pil­leth in Powys, and the site of Owain Glyn­dwr’s fa­mous de­feat of the English at the bat­tle of Bryn Glas. The land is grazed by sheep farm­ers who hold com­mon rights, while the shooting rights are rented by a small lo­cal syndicate cap­tained by re­tired hill farmer Peter Hood. David’s post is funded by the Welsh gov­ern­ment as part of the Powys Moor­land Part­ner­ship, which in­cludes three moors aim­ing to re­store grouse and other en­dan­gered birds.

The project started af­ter the 2013 State of Na­ture re­port re­vealed con­tin­ued de­clines of wildlife in Wales. Frus­trated that, de­spite a con­sid­er­able in­vest­ment in con­ser­va­tion work, there was very lit­tle suc­cess to show, the Welsh gov­ern­ment an­nounced a pi­lot pro­gram called the Na­ture Fund to de­liver en­vi­ron­men­tal, eco­nomic and so­cial out­comes through col­lab­o­ra­tive ac­tion within two years. Out of that came the Sus­tain­able Man­age­ment Scheme (SMS), now funded by the Ru­ral De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme. GWCT’s Teresa Dent and Ian Coghill helped to put to­gether a part­ner­ship of land man­agers and ap­plied suc­cess­fully to the SMS for fund­ing for the Powys Moor­land Part­ner­ship and the North Wales Moor­land Part­ner­ship.

David is in the first year of the cur­rent three-year fund­ing pro­gramme, but has been work­ing full-time on the hill for three years. Af­ter the ini­tial Na­ture Fund grant came to an end in 2015, he de­cided to work for noth­ing and spent his own money on equip­ment while wait­ing for the SMS money to come through, rather than let the work go to waste.

Work­ing in part­ner­ship

In the 19th cen­tury, Beacon Hill was a prodi­gious grouse moor. You can see the re­mains of a grand Vic­to­rian shooting lodge on the hill­side and there was even a rail­way sta­tion to bring guests right up to the moor by train. Th­ese days, grouse are cling­ing on at about 30 brace in the au­tumn counts, and the num­bers of waders and other moor­land species have been sim­i­larly re­duced.

The rea­sons for this de­cline are com­plex. Since the 1960s, as the great es­tates dis­ap­peared, many

of the Welsh up­lands were ploughed or planted with woods. In the 1970s, headage pay­ments were in­tro­duced un­der the CAP, which meant farm­ers re­ceived sub­si­dies ac­cord­ing to the num­ber of sheep on their land. As a re­sult, heather, bracken and grass were over-grazed, leav­ing lit­tle food, habi­tat or shel­ter for waders and other birds. Since headage was re­placed by area pay­ments af­ter the foot and mouth cri­sis, the trans­for­ma­tion has been dra­matic, with heather and bracken re­turn­ing to the hill­side. David feels the graz­ing level is about right, ex­cept dur­ing win­ter months when ideally the num­ber of sheep would be re­duced.

Sheep graz­ing plays a cru­cial role in keep­ing down scrub and trees and the farm­ers on the hill are sup­port­ive and keen to make the project a suc­cess. Peter Hood, a for­mer sheep farmer him­self, said: “The farm­ers are tick­led pink by the crow con­trol David has achieved.”

Fo­cus on preda­tor con­trol

Over­graz­ing may have been an is­sue in the past, but for David the cur­rent prin­ci­pal chal­lenge is pre­da­tion. As with else­where in the UK, preda­tor num­bers have been in­creas­ing steadily – the prime threat to grouse and waders is the fox.

The prob­lem lies in the fact that there is no other keeper­ing for grouse or pheas­ant shoots within 15 miles, so any vac­uum cre­ated on the hill is quickly filled. Use of GWCT-ap­proved hu­mane snares is es­sen­tial and they are de­ployed in a highly tar­geted man­ner. A night vi­sion ri­fle­scope is also in­valu­able as foxes can be alarmed by the red lamp.

If he is af­ter a par­tic­u­lar fox, David reg­u­larly stays up sev­eral nights in suc­ces­sion un­til the small hours of the morn­ing, and is still not guar­an­teed suc­cess.

“I’m cur­rently putting in an 80-hour week,” he says. “If it’s dry and there’s a full moon, I lamp four or five hours ev­ery night. This win­ter, I’ve ac­counted for 85 foxes up here and each year I get more be­cause I’m get­ting bet­ter at it, but it’s still the tip of the ice­berg. Another keeper de­scribed the hill as the per­fect place for predators as it’s an is­land moor.”

In ad­di­tion to foxes, avian predators, such as car­rion crows, take the eggs and chicks of ground-nest­ing birds in the breed­ing sea­son. David con­trols them by means of Larsen and lad­der traps and has caught about 2,700 in the past three years. His trap­ping line, which in­cludes tun­nel traps for stoats, weasels and rats, takes five hours to check ev­ery morn­ing. Crow num­bers may also have been boosted by less lamb­ing on the hill.

Peter, the cap­tain of the lo­cal syndicate, ex­plained: “Farm­ers used to con­trol crows be­cause they would kill the new­born lambs. Th­ese days, you see many who will walk un­der a crow’s nest with­out notic­ing.”

A long way to go

Grouse can be found in ar­eas they hadn’t been when David started, and on one part of the moor num­bers have tre­bled, ac­cord­ing to this year’s spring counts. How­ever, they are start­ing from a low base and the chal­lenge is great. Other bird species are mak­ing a more rapid re­cov­ery in­clud­ing mis­tle thrushes and sky­larks, and cuck­oos can now be heard in pro­fu­sion in spring. Th­ese like to lay their eggs in meadow pipit’s nests, which have also in­creased. Hare num­bers have boomed as have kestrels and mer­lins. This year, more ex­ten­sive bird counts will be car­ried out for the first time so progress can be mapped more ac­cu­rately. Another en­dan­gered species to have benefitted, and one which is close to David’s heart, is the curlew. “We have man­aged to in­crease curlew broods on the hill, which I am de­lighted by,” he says. “When you hear the bird’s call on the moor at the end of Fe­bru­ary, it’s the first sign of spring and I stop to admire the sound spilling from the sky, equalled only by the sky­lark.” Im­pres­sive re­sults on Beacon Hill and other moors in the part­ner­ship have fed into the Shrop­shire & Welsh Marches Re­cov­ery Project, a grass­roots curlew con­ser­va­tion cam­paign run by Amanda Perkins. Notes based on GWCT re­search are now be­ing used as guides by the lo­cal com­mu­nity groups in­volved in the project. Another large part of David’s work is restor­ing the bal­ance of habi­tat by cre­at­ing a patch­work of heather, bracken, white grass and moss, as well as dig­ging ponds to pro­vide wa­ter for grouse and to at­tract in­sects. In the past, the heather was

ei­ther over­grazed or al­lowed to grow too tall, and large ar­eas have been over­taken by bracken, which is con­trolled by wip­ing the plants with her­bi­cide (rather than spray­ing), to avoid dam­age to the grass and moss be­neath. Younger heather can be brashed (cut) and the older, leg­gier ar­eas show far bet­ter restora­tion through burn­ing.

David has ini­ti­ated a 10-year ro­ta­tion of small ar­eas of cool burn to avoid dam­ag­ing the moss and peat un­der­neath. One of the big­gest chal­lenges is the tiny win­dow. He ex­plained: “Our per­mit­ted burn­ing pe­riod is two weeks shorter than in Eng­land and Scot­land. You need three clear sunny days and no snow to burn and be­cause there is so much rain­fall it is dif­fi­cult to keep within the time­frame.”

Mem­bers of the shoot vol­un­teer their time to lend a hand with brash­ing and burn­ing. They re­lease a few red­leg par­tridges ev­ery year for two in­for­mal shoot days. Peter, whose fam­ily has held the shooting rights since 1950, ex­plained: “Our way of shooting is very un­usual. It’s sim­i­lar to a fam­ily pic­nic. Wives and chil­dren come out on ponies and we drive the ground, it’s more like a grouse count. The butts have long since dis­ap­peared, so I place the Guns.”

In the 1960s, the syndicate had eight days with an av­er­age bag of 15 brace on each; this year they limited the whole sea­son’s bag to three grouse. The aim is to fund David’s work through one or two let days per year. There is still a long way to go, but the syndicate is fully sup­port­ive of the broader con­ser­va­tion project and happy to keep go­ing un­til grouse num­bers re­turn.”

Friends and ben­e­fits

One of the pos­i­tives of the SMS ap­proach is the po­ten­tial through keeper­ing to pro­vide em­ploy­ment in re­mote up­land ar­eas. Another is the op­por­tu­nity to en­gage the com­mu­nity and get more mem­bers of the pub­lic out onto the hill and

en­joy­ing the wildlife. David is con­fi­dent this can be achieved pro­vided ex­ist­ing laws, which re­quire peo­ple to stick to foot­paths and keep dogs on leads around live­stock, are en­forced. He said: “Ev­ery­one in­volved knows we need to share this spe­cial place with ev­ery­body. They man­age to do it on the grouse moors in the north of Eng­land, so we can here.”

Look­ing ahead, David is hop­ing to have an as­sis­tant keeper from Oc­to­ber un­til the spring. Cur­rent fund­ing is due to end in 2020 and he is hop­ing that, should grouse num­bers not yet be suf­fi­cient to pay for the man­age­ment, the wider con­ser­va­tion suc­cesses such as greater num­bers of curlew and other waders will per­suade the Wesh Ru­ral De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme to con­tinue sup­port­ing the project.

He said: “I want to see vi­able grouse shooting back in Wales with all the ben­e­fits to the other

ground nest­ing birds that brings. As the Welsh gov­ern­ment has backed the project with con­sid­er­able in­vest­ment, I want it to re­pay their trust and show that shooting can fund great con­ser­va­tion work.”

David Thomas and Peter Hood

Con­ser­va­tion work in­cludes restor­ing the bal­ance of habi­tat and dig­ging ponds

The sound of the curlew in­di­cates the first signs of spring

David Thomas out in the Powys hills

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