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

Sporting Shooter - - Keeper’s Diary -

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.

Grit­ting

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.

Beat­ing com­mu­nity

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.

Pre­da­tion

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

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