It?s hard to catch a moorland keeper at home this close to the Twelfth. They?re out from dawn until teatime, and often back out again in the evening. There are a million and one jobs to do in the final few weeks before the season begins and Fred Mitchinson, a moorland keeper in the Peak District, very kindly spared a couple of hours last week to tell me what he?d been doing to prepare.
That morning, Fred had been grouse counting since 5am: ?It?s the best time to do it as the grouse are out but they haven?t yet been disturbed,? he said. ?As the day goes on, a covey spreads out, and as they get older they spread out even further.?
Fred counts the grouse on his own for the sake of consistency. If a team comes to help one year and not the next, it can be misleading. ?I was out with five dogs this morning,? he said. ?I do bits of the moor at a time ? there?s no point trying to count the whole place in one go.
?We don?t start immediately on the Twelfth here and three weeks in a grouse?s life can make a big difference. Everything that lives on a moor grows quickly in order to survive. Think of how tiny the little lambs are when they?re newborn, then you see them a week later and they?ve grown so fast that you could almost eat them! It?s the same with grouse. The few weeks between the start of the season and when we start shooting make all the difference between a smallish bird and a strong, fine bird.?
As we talked, standing in one of the immaculate grouse butts on the moor, which is owned by a syndicate who have had it in their families for many years, we could see Manchester through a haze farther down the valley. ?Obviously, we can?t compete with the big moors in the Northern Pennines, but to be able to produce 100-brace of wild birds only 14 miles from Salford never ceases to amaze me,? said Fred.
Maintaining the butts
First impressions count and every keeper knows that the Guns will be inspecting their butts as they wait for the first grouse to appear. ?It?s the Gun?s first impression of the drive. When he?s waiting, every Gun is going to examine the butt, looking to pick faults or perhaps to give you a compliment,? said Fred. ?Nice floors are very important. There?s nothing worse for a Gun than to have bad footing in the butt. He needs to be able to move and it?s no good if he?s standing in six inches of peat and mud, slipping about. It?s important for them to be comfortable. When the grouse start coming, Guns completely forget about the butt, of course, but first impressions do count.?
The butts are built up over several years and are designed to look natural and blend in with the moor. They are made of stone and topped with bilberry. ?The stone is built up to a certain height because the sheep come in to shelter and they rub against it. If it was only made of peat they would keep rubbing and rubbing until it collapses, so the stone has to be built up to stop the sheep damaging the butt. The top bit is made of layers of bilberry cut with a cutter, pulled up with a slicer and then pegged on top of one another, which makes it blend in with the surroundings ? a row of butts with cropped bilberry looks lovely. Once it?s established, all you need to do is to tidy it up with the shears. It?s like a lawn: if you keep cutting it, it grows nice and thick.
?The butts don?t need to be too tall ? about chest-high is right. The best butts are the ones that have very little view in front of them. Some Guns have an awful habit of bobbing up and down in the butt, but this one has a hill in front of it so the grouse aren?t going to see the Guns until they come over it at the last minute. The best Guns stand completely still with their gun up, ready.?
Everything but keepering
In the last month before the season, a moorland keeper?s ?to-do list? covers virtually anything and everything but keepering. ?We have hundreds of jobs to do at this time of year. You can be a carpenter one day, a painter and decorator the next, cutting grass at the house or round the cabins ? I have two lunch cabins that need to be maintained. The Guns always have a big meal at lunchtime, so there has to be water and Calor Gas at the cabins, and the loos have to be working. There are flags to make, the gamelarder to sort out ? so you do everything but keeper it for this last month. Then when you start shooting, on go the tweeds and you?re away,? Fred told me.
The shoot day
Fred has about 30 people to organise for the support element of each shoot day, which includes the beaters, flankers, pickers-up and cooks. When his son played for the local football team, Fred recruited his teammates into the beating line. ?It?s a lot to organise, but it?s great when the beaters come here for several years and know what they?re doing. They don?t have to be told. Once everyone is here on the morning, I can relax a bit. It?s always a bit worrying the night before if people start ringing up to say they can?t beat for one reason or another.
?When the Guns turn up at the house, you want everything to be right. You want them to think what a nice place it is to come to, that everyone is friendly, and that they?re made welcome and are going to have a good day. It?s the first impression of the place and, regardless of how good the shooting is, if the rest of the day isn?t right, it?s no good. I want the Guns to come and have a great day, to remember it and say what a nice place it is ? that?s what the job?s about and everything we do throughout the rest of the year leads up to that. The shoot day is the finale ? I love them and would shoot every day if I could! It?s great to see the Guns again, and I love seeing smiles on their faces when I bring a drive in.?
Leaving a legacy
Fred has worked on the same Peak District moor for 26 years and is conscious that keepers before him have worked hard to look after the moor and that those who come after him will benefit from his contribution as its custodian. The enormous private investment of grouse moor owners is key to the sustainable management of Britain?s precious moorlands for the benefit of wild grouse and other species, as well as the planting of native trees, creation of mini-moorland ponds to benefit insects, water voles and amphibians, controlling bracken to prevent it from swamping other moorland plants, and improving drystone walls and other fencing to manage grazing. ?The important thing is to be able to pass it on to the next generation in a better state,? concluded Fred.