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Upland Keeper

As almost the whole of England and Wales is as dry as a crisp, you might expect the areas of the countryside most at risk of fire to be closed to the public. Not a bit of it, as far as I can see. The Fire Severity Index (FSI) which the Government agencies use to monitor such a risk, has considered all to be well. This is despite the fact that large chunks of moorland and woodland have already gone up in smoke.

I hope those who would stop all controlled burning are taking note because we have long been warning that if managed burning was stopped, the risk of huge uncontrolled fires would be vastly increased, along with the loss of habitat and a signifi cant number of moorland birds. Already the numbers lost this year will be substantial as almost all were incubating eggs, some of which would already have hatched. Those chicks would not have been strong enough to fly and would have met a tragic death being burned alive along with leverets and red deer fawns in Scotland.

I recall one member of the Burning Forum stating that he would rather take the risk of summer fires than see controlled burning continue. I wonder what his thoughts are now as I watch pictures of large areas of peat on fire. The carbon store we are tasked with protecting is being burned by careless or deliberate acts. It will also take years to recover as the fires will have burned most of the seed bank.

It is hard to believe that the FSI has not come up to scratch even in this record-breaking spring, with almost non-existent rainfall allied with high temperatures. The gamekeeping community has long argued that it is an ineffective system and so it has proved to be once more. We must remember, though, that it was introduced to control access on ?open access? land. We always thought that there was more weight given to the arguments of the access lobby, and into continuing to allow access, than to safeguarding the various habitats and species. The environment took second place when it came to politics.

With any luck, we will have had a good soak by the time you read this, but it will not change the fact that unless the Government reviews its policy and changes it, the same thing may happen again. It is simply not good enough that we care for our open spaces in such a manner.

That rainfall will have at least given some covercrops the chance to germinate, as many keepers who rely on such cover must have been wondering what was going to happen this year. And though many months away, it will also give all the small birds, which have come to rely on such food supplies, a better chance of survival this coming winter.

A call for accountability

I have been reading the significant amount of comment on the RSPB?s lottery grants and there seems to be a fairly positive theme to the vast majority of opinions. But why, given its track record at actually producing birds?

It has struck me that we should have a body similar to the Public Accounts Committee to oversee exactly how well lottery funding is delivering the outcomes for which it was originally granted. If there was such scrutiny, then it is possible that large sums would not be wasted as they appear to have been in the recent past. After all, it is our money, and those who receive it should be accountable for its expenditure. I am only too well aware that many of these applications succeed because they tick the correct boxes. It may get the funding, but it does not produce the goods!

Low worm counts

On the moors it is a busy period of the year with many keepers flipping the lids on the medicated grit boxes while the chicks are not yet flying. It is quite a good time to do it as small chicks are less likely to be scattered by the keeper on foot, than once they have grown and are on the wing in a few weeks? time. Given the thousands of boxes which are now out on many moors it is a job that cannot be left until the last few weeks before shooting, as poor weather may delay the operation, and that would risk breaching the withdrawal period dates.

The whole worm picture is rather mixed up once again as the dry weather will have suppressed worm survival this spring. Because of this and the cold snap last November no keepers are expecting high worm counts in birds, even those at quite high densities.

We have a few weeks to go, though, before we can start to count our grouse chicks in the knowledge that, unless the unthinkable happens, we will see them going through the butts in August.