Simon Lester's gamekeeping diary

July 2011

USUALLY, there's a fair bit of excitement when July arrives—it's time to count the grouse, see how they've fared and decide whether or not there's a shootable surplus. This year, however, I am sad to say that all the keepers had a pretty good idea of grouse numbers even before a pointer set foot on the moor.

A combination of weather and predation has devastated our birds. The weather has continued to be foul since I last updated my diary in June. It has affected the black grouse—only one brood has been seen so far, and that consisted of just one youngster. And, with an average brood size of 2.5 the population of red grouse will struggle even to remain stable through the winter at last year's levels of predation. The rain has also hit waders hard. Several broods of curlews that I had been keeping an eye on have succumbed to the weather.

It may also be that the weather is exacerbating the predation pressure as birds are forced into the open to try to dry off. Although not witnessed, I sincerely believe that some of the curlews must have been predated by buzzards or taken by a family of seven ravens that regularly hunt across the area. On a different but related note, even the ground nesting raptors have struggled with predators, as one of the Merlin nests has been taken. The most likely culprit is a fox, although there are increasing numbers of badgers settling on or near the moor.

However, in the air it's the ravens that appear to me more obvious this year at least partly because some have taken to stealing the diversionary food that we put out for the hen harriers. The cock and the hen spent a lot of time trying to fend off the interlopers, but the ravens were so persistent that the harriers were powerless to stop them nipping in and nicking the food off the post.

Fortunately, this interference occurred towards the end of the feeding period and did not prevent the harriers taking feed back to the nest during the critical time when they might otherwise have begun to prey on grouse chicks in order to feed their young. Now that the young harriers from the first nest have fledged, and are ranging away from the nest site, we have stopped giving them diversionary food. I am continuing to put out 24 dead cockerel chicks and six rats a day at the second nest, where I see ravens every day. The hen has started to remove food from the post and drop it on the hill. The ravens have quickly latched on to this and can often be seen combing the hill in search of the spoils. The hen harrier then retrieves some of this food and delivers it to the nest. All the young in this second nest have been tagged and one has been fitted with a satellite tag.

It's a strange month when a heather beetle attack can be seen in a positive light. Fortunately, this year's assault on our precious heather is not as bad as the attacks of the last two years. The far southern end of the estate is the worst affected, where even two-year-old heather has been hit.

I am delighted to report that young heather is beginning to regenerate on most of the areas of purple moor grass (Molinia) that we have sprayed with Glyphosphate, burnt, chopped or reseeded with heather seed. Tiny heather seedlings are popping up all over the place, along with a nice mix of cotton grass, cross-leaved heath and blaeberry. Controlling the molinia has also allowed more orchids to flower. I'm so pleased that our large-scale heather restoration programme is underway. The success of previously restored plots gives me great hope that this latest effort will see great swathes of moorland restored to their former glory.

My wildlife highlight of the month was seeing a mum woodcock brooding three well-grown chicks. The family were drying off on the side of the road, which enabled me to have a really good look at these fascinating, and odd-looking, long-beaked little creatures.


Simon Lester - Lorne Gill