If there was ever a year when grouse numbers were difficult to predict, this is it. After record-breaking temperatures in March, when the palls of heather smoke floated high into the sky day after day, Mother Nature decided we had had too much of the good life and sent the bill.
April rang in the changes, with the wind swinging round into the north-to-north-east, and it stayed there for months. With it came the longest spell of low temperatures I can ever remember, with few days making it into double figures, and, not surprisingly, a few coverings of snow. I use the word ?covering? loosely ? the worst one at the end of April blew into drifts 6ft deep in places. What you need to remember is that by then we had lapwing, woodcock, curlew, snipe, duck and some grouse sitting. The losses were considerable for some species ? lapwings deserted nests in large numbers. From what I am now seeing, there were very late broods from a whole suite of species, and lapwings must have done the same. For those birds that stuck the snow out, they were not yet out of danger. We had another nasty spell in the middle of May, when more or less our whole moor was covered by an inch or two of snow and the temperature was zero. Scotland fared worse, with 6in and more on some of the high ground.
A lack of insects
By then we had quite a lot of grouse hatched and those chicks really needed some insects to get vital protein into their diets. Insects were scarce, as the vast majority of the migrants that came to the moors discovered. It was so bad that many of them beat a retreat back to lower ground for some weeks until things improved a little. Wheatears and the other passerines were hardly seen when they should have been commonplace. Reports from the estuaries were of large numbers of waders back on the mudflats when they should have been sitting on eggs The raptor species are not immune to the conditions either, and it would appear that many decided to save their energy for another year and did not bother to breed. Even our stoat population delayed their breeding cycle as we found when they were late in turning up with their youngsters. It is, of course, the female stoat that decides when to start the growth of her young from the delayed implantation from the previous summer. Obviously, this year the food was not there for stoats in the form of eggs and chicks as early as they would have liked it.
And then the rain
Those moors that did not get the snow got rain, rain, and more rain. So much that what had been dry peat in March flooded badly, with large areas of standing water and reports from many moors of nests washed out. It was a bleak time, so bad that many moorland keepers hardly dared venture far for fear of disturbing precious broods and scattering youngsters.
Those further south who had little to complain about except that the rivers were dry also soon had too much of the wet stuff as the rain spread nationwide. Chalkstreams that had been fordable in boots washed over the banks. There were floods everywhere even though most had not thought it possible, given the state of the ground a few weeks before.
Weeks passed and there was little we could do except hope that it would improve and that our partridges and blackgrouse would have a chance to produce a brood. It didn?t improve, and the partridge hatch, which coincides with that of the blackgrouse, was a washout. For the first time in my working life I have yet to see a young wild grey ? there appear to be only barren pair after barren pair.
The hardiest of gamebirds
The grouse are not considered the hardiest gamebirds for nothing. Ptarmigans may beat them, but they are seldom found unless you are on a 3,000ft mountain, and they are not there in numbers. That said, given what grouse have gone through, I am surprised at what they have achieved.
Reports from various parts of the country are similar in some respects. The higher ground has not fared well in the far north, as the snow appears to have done severe damage, leaving many pairs with no brood at all. Whether they had hatched or not when the snow arrived seems to have made no difference ? they have failed to rear anything. There are reports of a few late small broods, but these will not make up for the many that were lost. On lower ground, at least below the late snow line, things are better, but reduced areas of grouse-producing ground do not make for good seasons. Closer to home, on the Borders and into the north of England where the snow was less deep, the effects are slightly less pronounced with smaller broods, though here there are also barren pairs, which skews the young-to-old ratio. The sad thing about Scotland is that the west coast has had a lovely summer ? quite warm and with very little rain. Unfortunately, however, that area of Scotland is not prime grouse moor territory anymore. The grouse ground of the middle to east of Scotland was hit more or less equally badly, and the result is that there will be no bumper season ? far from it.
As always, there are bright spots. When I look east from our moor, I look down on a number of moors, all lower than us in altitude. Miles towards the sea sit the North York Moors and on a clear day we can watch them burning heather, while often we are still in snow cover, such is the height discrepancy. In altitude, they end where we begin, at around 1,500ft. At times, that can and does make a huge difference in how the birds perform. Every 100ft up the hill the temperature drops a degree or two and the rain tends to be more intense.
A highground low
Sometimes the highground comes out on top, but this season I fear it will be the opposite. I gather, however, that the North Yorkshire Moors have a few grouse to shoot, and some moors are better than they were last year, which is very rare.
Localised weather incidents have also played their parts, as some beats suffered torrential rain when a mile or two away it was bone dry. There is no doubt there will be a reasonable number of birds in the Pennines with some moors or beats shooting well, while most will fall short of the high bags of the past season or two. The same is being said of Derbyshire and Lancashire, which fared no better with the elements. They got the snow, rain and everything else that was going.
Local weather, local results
So, where does that leave us in the run up to the season? Though the weather has been awful, it has also been localised, so moors that are not too far apart may fare completely differently because of that. Altitude and aspect will play more of a part this year than in previous seasons. Heather browned by the north-easterly winds has still not completely recovered and the food supply for some birds has been poor.
Those moors that caught some of the worst thunderstorms have suffered, while neighbours will not. It is a bitter pill to swallow, especially when the season promised so much for so many and will deliver well below what we hoped for in March. However, most moors were carrying high stocks, and it is these that will carry many through to have a season they will be content with, considering what they have suffered.