The syndicate grouse shoot at Bowland, Lancashire, works with the RSPB and has successful hen harriers. It is a shining light for our sport, writes Kate Gatacre

I don’t suppose there are many grouse moors that can boast a former RSPB employee among its beating team, but the syndicate that rents three moors from United Utilities can. In fact, this grouse shooting syndicate has been working with the RSPB, and this year, much to everyone’s delight, two hen harrier nests fledged chicks.

There are few places as unspoiled as Bowland, where United Utilities’s moors are. Leaving the fringes of Preston, in Lancashire, you drop into the most charming scenery. Unscarred by pylons, the roads wind in and out of the hills, with wild moorland guarding its edges. I was lucky enough to be put up by the renowned Inn at Whitewell, where, over a cup of tea, I chatted to Charlie, who manages the establishment. With the river flowing steadily below (where there are trout to be fished), he told me that this year has seen an unprecedented demand for grouse from the kitchen, which are all sourced from Lancashire moors.

A vigorous approach
Pete Wilson, the aforementioned former RSPB employee, has since worked for United Utilities as its central area biodiversity officer, and on the eve of the big day, I chatted to him and Shooting Times contributor Ian Grindy to get some background on the shoot. Ian joined United Utilities in 1997 to manage the shooting on its land, and it became clear during our conversation that he had taken an energetic approach, making the stipulations of the shooting leases more vigorous.

Two nests of hen harriers successfully fledged

Two nests of hen harriers successfully fledged

It was in the early 2000s that United Utilities decided a new approach was needed to its water sources. Rather than using engineering to purify water, which in essence is treating the symptoms rather than the cause, UU took a brave step and decided to invest in improving the environment where the water comes from. All the farmers on United Utilities’s land, some 10,000ha, turned to the Higher Level Scheme, and funding worth £2.5million from United Utilities was put towards conservation.

The Sustainable Catchment Management Project (SCAMP) was started. Rivers were fenced to create buffers from agricultural activity and opportunities for creation of clough woodland; moorland grips (ditches) were blocked; areas of bare peat have been restored and buildings for farmers overwintering their livestock were updated. The results have been tremendous, with water being filtered naturally through blanket bog where it had once gushed straight into the river. “It’s meant that we have not only improved this whole area in terms of habitat and ecology, but in future we will use far less filtering and chemicals, too,” Pete enthused.

Farming tenants were encouraged to use agri-environment schemes, and for example, at Brennand, part of United Utilities’s extensive land that has a good concentration of waders, they have been controlling rushes, forming scrapes and rewetting the area to improve the habitat.

However, it is particularly notable that it is this estate of United Utilities’s that has led the way, as Pete explained: “This place has exceeded all plans, and all the others are following its lead.” Ian chimed in: “Pete drew up the first plans, and they’ve contributed hugely to the Lancashire Biodiversity Action Plan, too.”

A fair tender
The syndicate system has clearly worked well, too. Leases are awarded not to the shoot that will pay the most. As Ian said: “It gives the ordinary man a chance. When the lease for the moors came up, it wasn’t going to be given to the highest bidder. A fair tender was important, but the real issue is that the shoot had to meet the objectives set out by United Utilities.”

Water, conservation and recreation were the three most important points for a leaseholder to meet. The shoot had to be prepared to work with the RSPB, which since 1981 had a partnership with North West Water before it became United Utilities. The shoot would also have to work productively with the tenant farmers to work towards better water quality.

There are four core shooting leases on the moors: Lamb Hill, Croasdale, Brennand, and Hareden & Sykes, and the two moors that make up Whitendale, as well as four lowground leases. Two of the grouse moor leases came up at the same time, Lamb Hill and Croasdale, and it was Phil Gunning who got together the syndicate that secured the lease. Ian elaborated on the shooting: “It’s people like Phil, who are willing to take a moor on and shoot at a sustainable level that make this possible.

duncan-basc

Duncan Thomas, north-west officer for BASC, with his gundog Scooby

“The syndicate has tremendous enthusiasm, and everyone involved contributes. If the farmers or locals have any problems, the shoot members are the first people to help. The shooting is very natural — no-one expects 200-brace days. It’s a sensible approach to numbers. The shoot pays for trail cams, too, so that it can keep an eye on predators. A weekly update is sent by the RSPB to all interested parties, so everyone feels they have a big stake in this.”

Working together
And what of the RSPB? Have there been any tensions? As Pete explained, the going hasn’t always been smooth. “Historically, in this area, the RSPB had seasonal staff, so they’d be here from February through to the end of the breeding season.” Understandably, bringing in new people each year made it difficult to build relationships. “It was alright, but it could have been better. So after discussion, it was decided that a full-timer would be more productive.”

Now, the shoot funds diversionary feeding for the hen harriers, which is carried out and monitored by the RSPB. “Hen harriers have bred successfully here since 1969, with the only exception being 2012 and 2013,” Pete told me.

“Of course numbers have fluctuated. The diversionary feeding follows the Langholm project example, and sticks to the Scottish Natural Heritage guidelines. We set up the feeding station 100m away from the nest, and it is started right at the end of the incubation period. However, hen harriers aren’t natural carrion eaters, so it doesn’t always work, and can take a while. This year, the first nest worked well, but the second nest didn’t take to it at all.”

A day in the butts
The following morning I was picked up by Duncan Thomas, north-west officer for BASC. Duncan, a member of the shoot, had generously suggested I bring my gun along — not an offer I was about to refuse. I’d be sharing his butt, and shooting alternate drives. We met in the Hark to Bounty pub, at Slaidburn, for bacon butties and a very welcome cup of coffee. The weather wasn’t looking too clever, with an indecisiveness between horizontal rain and drizzle. Low cloud and strong winds weren’t going to do us any favours. However, the mood in the pub was cheerful in anticipation, with beaters, Guns and guests chattering away. I managed a brief conversation with Maurice Kettlewell and Steven Roberts, who share the keepering of the two moors. Maurice has been at Bowland for 20 years, but hails from the Peak District. He was glad he had enough beaters this week: “Last week, we only had nine — there were a few other shoots on, and the Midland Game Fair. We really need more than that.” Lamb Hill had been particularly productive this year, according to Maurice, which was also where we’d be heading for our day.

A brief stop between drives for the Guns

A brief stop between drives for the Guns

We were soon on our way to the first drive, which Duncan was going to shoot. In the distance, across the valley, we could make out the flankers with their flags. “The main priority now is going to be trying to shoot the single birds,” Duncan said, as he settled his three dogs — a vizsla, a vizsla-Labrador cross and a sprocker. His eldest vizsla, Cliquot, had been sent along with Pete in the beating line.

It wasn’t long before we spotted the first wavings of flags, indicating that grouse might be coming our way. And indeed, they were, whizzing below us, hugging the line of the sloping ground, from left to right. With the wind behind them, they were not going to be easy to bring down, but nonetheless, birds fell, both to Duncan’s shots and to our right and left.

The beaters appeared in the distance, forming a huge, back-to-front “C” in front of us, and sending more birds our way, with the occasional order from Maurice reaching our ears. The horn sounded for shooting only behind, and each gun made sure his neighbour had heard it. A lovely bird whizzed between Duncan and his neighbour, and fell to Duncan’s shot, just before the final horn was blasted.

Releasing his dogs, Duncan sent them off behind to collect his bird, which Scooby, the vizsla, brought back to hand. The remaining birds picked, the line of guns headed to the second drive.

Scooby the visla returning a grouse

Scooby the visla bringing a grouse back to hand

With the horizon just 40 yards in front of us, there’d be little time for me to react. Sure enough, the first packs caught me out. Duncan, however, was the most reassuring companion one could ask for: “They’ve packed up quite a bit, which makes it much trickier, and with this wind, you won’t find a much harder bird.” Just towards the end of the drive, I hit a left-to-right bird — which squawked — before my neighbour finished it off. The shoot doesn’t have a dedicated picking-up team, but there were plenty of beaters with dogs, as well as guns, and not a bird marked down went unpicked.

We had a brief stop for lunch, and, with the sun having chased the rain away, it was a pleasant half hour before the next drive. There were, perhaps, fewer birds this drive over Duncan, but we spotted several great packs, of 30 or more, shimmering below us, over the line down the hill.

It was, however, the last drive that will stick in my mind. The weather had once more turned slightly — and though the rain hadn’t come back to obscure our vision, the clouds obscuring the watery sun gave the afternoon a dinstinct chill. As pack after pack whizzed and whirred over the guns below us, I could sense Duncan’s frustration. And then, as we had almost lost hope of anything coming over, six birds roared by from our left.

I found my bird, and brought it down properly. It was one of those moments that sticks with you. As we counted out the grouse, dividing the 36-and-a-half brace between old and young birds, the enthusiasm from everyone, the enjoyment and pride in the day, was inspiring.