The life of a grouse beat keeper
With this year’s grouse season well and truly underway, Charlie Matthews takes a break from his gamekeeping chores to look back at his beat keeping days on a Yorkshire moor
Ispent pretty much the whole of my twenties on a well-known Yorkshire grouse moor as a beat keeper – worlds apart from my current pheasant keepering days.
The Glorious Twelfth of August is the start of the season and, although it ends on 10 December, very few will shoot to the end as it all depends on when you run out of grouse. By this, I don’t mean that every single one on the place is shot as enough will need to be left for the numbers to re-establish. This year, the industry has been reporting that there are a number of shoots who have chosen not to shoot any at all because the numbers are so low.
The biggest three factors which affect grouse are habitat, vermin and the weather – the last being the most important. The weather will affect when the grouse start laying with the main hatch traditionally being the last May bank holiday, so for grouse shot in mid-August, the young birds are only around 12 weeks old.
If the hatch is late, the shooting will be delayed. In bad years for rearing, there may be a warm start which brings the bird into lay sooner, followed by very wet weather or very cold weather, which can devastate hatches. Although grouse can deal with the cold well, being an arctic bird, the hen bird needs to have time off the nest each day to feed and drink etc and during this time the eggs can chill very quickly, killing the developing chicks inside. One year in Yorkshire, we were finding frozen eggs in -4°C at the end of May.
If it is a bad year, some moors will only end up shooting a couple of days or cancelling completely. It sounds disheartening when a year’s worth of work doesn’t end with shooting, but this is the way of grouse keepering: long periods of work for short shooting seasons. Even in good years, some moors will shoot every day for one or two weeks and then stop rather than spreading it
out over several months.
As soon as shooting stops, gritting begins. Grit is key for grouse management as it is essential for the grouse to be able to digest the tough heather. It is the only way of medicating the birds for things such as worms as no feeders or drinkers are put down. Before the shooting season starts, the medicated side is shut off to allow time for the withdrawal. Every box will be cleaned, washed and refilled, all in the middle of the moor.
My beat covered 4,000 acres out of a total of 13,500 acres of heather. I would start gritting as soon as our shooting season ended and it would take me six weeks to do all my boxes.
Top-ups throughout the year and then the shut off of the medicated sides before shooting would mean that three out of every 12 months is dedicated to gritting.
There were three other beats on our moor, each with its own beat keeper. Grouse keepering can be fairly solitary, except when it comes to the essential activities when several beat keepers will come together to help on each other’s beats for the benefit of the moor and the shooting as a
whole, such as butt building, track laying or heather burning.
The heather burning season starts on 1 October and finishes on 15 April as during this time no birds are nesting and the fires can be controlled as the moor isn’t too dry.
I would usually spend 35-40 days a year burning to regenerate the heather. The strips of burnt and regenerating ground also acts as a fire break in the event of an accidental summer fire being started.
Predator control is ongoing all year round, but when the snow is on the ground, fox control becomes the top priority as the snow allows for them to be more easily tracked and traced.
Grouse counting takes place during July and, on my beat, this was relatively quick and used to take me a few mornings.
For our moor, maintenance of roads and butts started at the beginning of June and finished at the start of August. Many large commercial moors will employ contractors to mend the tracks as these months are incredibly important for predator control (mainly stoats) when the young grouse are on the ground.
We would also control the stoats during this time, spending every evening checking the traps after a full day’s track or butt mending. So for pheasant keepers who think that the grouse keeper has it easy in the summer as they don’t have to rear birds, think again!
Highs and lows
The biggest low was definitely gritting in the middle of winter as, with the huge distances, it wasn’t feasible to come back during the day for a brew or lunch. The waterproofs certainly got a proper test!
As for any keeper, the highlight was definitely a really good shoot day when your dogs work well, there has been some good shooting and you get to show what your year of hard graft has produced. A whisky with your fellow keepers in the game larder after you have walked 10 to 12 miles that day always tastes good, particularly if that good day’s shooting has happened on your beat.
There was some friendly rivalry with the other beat keepers, but it was never anything serious as you are all working for the same estate to achieve the same thing. However, by the end of my 10-year stint, the best highlight was that my beat, which had traditionally been the poor side of the estate, had been regenerated sufficiently to out-shoot the best side for five years in a row, which had never been done in the estate’s history. A bit of friendly rivalry is great, but it’s even better to break some records while you are at it.
‘This year, a number of shoots have chosen not to shoot any grouse at all because the numbers are so low’
Shoots monitor grouse numbers and most won’t continue right up to the official close of the season
It may look beautiful, but working on the moors in winter is not for the faint-hearted
Charlie’s high points were the really good shoot days when the dogs were working well