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Open season as visitors get insight into grouse moor

Moorland conjures up pictures of remote swathes of heather stretching off to infinity. But in Yorkshire, one moor is almost surrounded by towns and villages, creating problems faced by no other moorland in Britain. Roger Ratcliffe reports.

From some parts of Rombalds Moor – the name given to the long, heather-cloaked ridge between Wharfedale and Airedale – the view extends right into the hearts of Leeds and Bradford.

With more than a million people on the doorstep, it's not surprising that the area is used as the place to find fresh-air recreation. And for a century and a half, town and country have mostly learned to get along fine, with the majority of visitors drawn to Ilkley Moor on the north side, where the network of footpaths is so vast that the moorland sometimes seems as busy as an urban park.

But on Bingley Moor, a 4,500-acre estate sprawling along the southern part of the ridge and overlooking the large towns of Bingley and Keighley, the proximity of such a huge population brings problems that its famous neighbour rarely suffers.

That's because the Bingley Moor Estate is run as a commercial grouse moor, making it not-so-fair game for a whole range of resentments. People with an animals rights agenda disagree with vermin control and destroy any traps they find. Some who see grouse shooting as the sport of "toffs" tend to have little respect for the work done to breed and maintain a large population of red grouse. Wanton vandalism of walls, shooting butts and signs is frequent.

This doesn't happen in the remote grouse moors of the Pennines, the Yorkshire Dales and the Scottish Highlands.

One response might be to try to keep out all but those who are sympathetic to field sports, but last weekend the estate decided to lay its cards on the table by holding a public open day. Well, not quite all of its cards, as it turned out.

Some 100 people attended – many of them ramblers and naturalists, pretty obvious shooting and fishing types and some full-time conservation workers. An encouraging number of families and locals also turned up and – encouraging as far as the estate was concerned – brought open minds with them.

Organised through the Countryside Alliance and the Moorland Association, their information officer, Tim Baynes, acted as MC, but the star of the show was Bingley Moor's head keeper, Donald McGill. Most people's mental image of a gamekeeper – in tweed waistcoat and breeches, Tattershall check shirt and estate tie – Donald has a habit of referring to himself in the third-person.

"We have to control predators like magpies and crows that prey on ground-nesting birds," he introduced a big cage known as a Larsen trap.

"The vermin are attracted by a clutch of pheasant's eggs and can't get back out. Unfortunately for the crows and magpies, Donald comes along later and makes sure they can't do any more harm."

There were other devices demonstrated – kisk traps to capture vixen and foxcubs as they leave their den, fen traps for stoats and weasels. They account for 200 foxes a year, hundreds of magpies and crows (one visitor got Donald to promise to come to her garden and get rid of the magpies that destroy the nests of other birds there), as well as 300-plus stoats and weasels, hundreds of rats and dozens of mink.

"Any questions so far," Donald stopped after a while.

"Does your wife have a mink coat?" asked one man.

"Yes." Donald thought the question a little too pointed. "And I'm very proud of it. She's also got a lovely fox fur and I'm proud of that too."

Other visitors seemed overly curious about the siting of his traps, and Donald – whose success at controlling foxes has made him pretty wily himself – suspected the questioners wanted to know where they could find them. Frequently, his traps are smashed or stolen.

"They are put in discreet places," was his cautious answer. "We make sure that they can be found only by the vermin that comes up here to eat birds' eggs and chicks."

Which provided him with a cue to make a larger point. It's not just the grouse that benefit from the traps, but every other ground-nesting bird on the moor breeds successfully because their predators are caught by gamekeepers. The list of species includes merlins, one of the country's rare birds of prey, as well as redshank, golden plovers, lapwings, curlews, skylarks, stonechats and wheatears.

He had even brought along a local ornithologist, Pete Rowe, to assure visitors that Bingley Moor Estate took conservation very seriously and that whatever they'd heard about gamekeepers elsewhere, didn't apply here.

This bird-protection aspect to grouse moors seemed to play well with the visitors, a fair number of whom were binocular-wearing birdwatchers. But others – dog owners who use the moor to exercise their pets – were told that dogs were often one of the biggest problems on the moor.

"I love dogs, but they have to be kept to the right places," Donald said firmly. "People have to respect the signs we've put up."

The open day included a number of demonstrations: the burning of heather that takes place between October and March to promote new growth, "fogging machines" on the back of all-terrain Argo Cats to spray fine mist and snuff out the flames in seconds, and a couple of "black-and-white machines" in the shape of two English setters called Kate and Max, both trained to sniff out grouse coveys and help the keepers to decide how many shooting days are possible in a year.

But there wasn't a demonstration of Donald capturing grouse to administer shots of worming pellets into their crops. "At the end of the day, we've got a job to do, and the birds must be given medicine, but it's better the public don't know how easy it is for us to catch grouse," he said later.

The only visible feature of grouse moors is the line of butts below the skyline. At Bingley Moor, they've suffered from much vandalism, and across the fence on Ilkley Moor – where grouse shooting is to start again for the first time in a decade – more than 50 butts have also been damaged deliberately.

It makes the economics of grouse moors tighter and tighter, according to one of the owners of Bingley Moor, Edward Bromit. Besides keepers' wages, there's the cost of equipment and the cost of repairing damage – higher than most moors because of the large population living nearby. And for two years they haven't been able to shoot any grouse because of poor breeding success, so there's been no income.

When shooting is possible, it can bring in 10,000 a day, but sometimes there might be only three or four days in the short season.

"We do it because we believe that there isn't anything more exciting in this life than shooting grouse," Bromit told the visitors.

The grouse sell for up to 12 a brace to game dealers, and roast grouse in a good hotel or restaurant can cost 25 a head. So it's still the feast of Dukes rather than dustmen, but last weekend the grouse was being served for free to Bingley Moor's visitors. Was it worth all the fuss?

"The meat's OK...a bit like lamb," said a woman from Leeds who had never tasted grouse before. "But at that price there's no point in me developing a taste for it, is there?"

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