By George, he’s Britain’s moors winner

A “townie” has just won one of Britain’s top gamekeeping awards for his work on a North Yorkshire grouse moor. Roger Ratcliffe meets George Thompson from Middlesbrough.

Middlesbrough with its chemical works and steel plants is about as industrialised a town as you’ll find in England.

This was especially so in the years when George Thompson was growing up when big-time steel and chemicals manufacturing were in their pomp on Teesside.

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It’s a legacy which lives on. People who come from this area are still referred to today in the North East as “smoggies”.

But this workaday environment, where there was barely a blade of grass to be found was, by the standards of major cities, quite compact.

It was possible to look out from it onto an entirely different world.

In the not-too-far distance there were tantalising views of dark, rolling hills. For those who valued fresh air, their lure was irresistible

George Thompson was brought up in Middlesbrough’s crowded streets by a father who worked for the local fire brigade and a mother who worked in a butcher’s shop.

But for as long as he can remember, he says, all he could think of was that line of hills which filled the horizon to the south.

When he was old enough he hitch-hiked there with friends most weekends and school holidays.

The aim was to birdwatch and take photographs of birds’ nests with a cheap Instamatic. By the time he was 16 he was in no doubt that he wanted to live in the North York Moors and work as a gamekeeper.

“I tried desperately to get into the profession, but unfortunately it was very difficult because I lived in a town,” says George.

“People said, ‘Oh, you’re from Middlesbrough’ and thought I must know nothing about the countryside.”

Forty years on, says George in his gentle Teesside accent, he has managed to learn one or two things.

It’s a typical understatement by him, because he has just received the premier award to British gamekeepers – the Bellamy Trophy – for his work in promoting conservation and education.

George is head keeper on 7,000-acre Spaunton Moor which spreads along the southern fringe of the North York Moors. In the 21 years he has worked there his habitat management work has reclaimed vast areas of bracken.

It has brought Spaunton Moor official recognition in the three highest categories of landscape quality – a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Special Protection Area, and a Special Area of Conservation.

“If it’s managed right, there’s something about a grouse moor you don’t get on any other landscape,” he says. “It’s the wildness, the bleakness, the richness of the wildlife.

“There’s so much going on up here. We have 45 different species of birds nesting on the moors, plus there’s byrophytes like mosses and liverworts, there’s insects, moths, butterflies, you name it.”

There are three pairs of Britain’s smallest bird of prey, the Merlin, nesting on the moor each spring.

You will also find large numbers of waders like golden plover, curlew, lapwing, common snipe and dunlin, and a healthy population of the most elusive member of the thrush family, the ring ouzel.

The main business up here of course is the production of red grouse for the shooting season which begins each August 12.

Last year Spaunton Moor broke all previous records for both the daily bag and the annual bag.

“That’s our harvest,” George says. “It’s no different to a farmer sending his lambs to market.

“We don’t produce sheep on this land, we produce grouse, then we shoot the grouse and take any income. But grouse are a funny species, and they go in cycles because of disease and climate.

“You get good years and bad ones, and I always say in respect of the bad times that if you can’t handle depression then you don’t want to be a gamekeeper on a grouse moor.”

Success depends on fitting together a complex jigsaw of factors. One of biggest pieces in the puzzle comes under the heading of habitat management like bracken spraying and heather burning, and leaving some wetter areas for drinking water which also benefit other birds. It’s vital work because the heather moor has to provide good food for adults and young birds as well as protection against their natural enemies.

Predator control, often the most controversial aspect of a gamekeeper’s job, is another big piece in the jigsaw.

George says of it: “You have to keep down the populations of predators like foxes, crows, stoats, weasels, rats and squirrels.

“Up here on the moors they’re not going to find chips and pizzas, it’s other living creatures they are after and nothing is more vulnerable than a bird sitting on eggs, or a nest full of young birds.

“Of course, predators don’t discriminate against grouse.

“They go after wading birds too, and so controlling predators gives these species the chance to nest and rear their chicks.

“On managed grouse moors the wading birds are five times more likely to breed successfully compared to those on unmanaged grouse moors.”

Also important is the fight against diseases which afflict grouse.

The fatal intestinal worm, Strongylosis, which in some years have seen whole grouse moors decimated, is now being brought under control with medicated grits, which the grouse eat to help them digest their food.

But in the North York Moors there is still a problem with diseases like Louping ill and tick-borne fever, both of which are transmitted by sheep ticks.

The problem is being tackled by reducing the bracken – which is the sheep tick’s preferred habitat – and by working with grazers on the moor to vaccinate their sheep.

The award scheme is run by the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation Educational Trust.

It’s an independent charity working to promote public awareness of the contribution made by gamekeepers to wildlife conservation in the UK.

George’s award not only recognises his conservation work but also his role in educating the public about the importance of grouse moors.

Unusually for a gamekeeper in traditional tweed jacket and breeches, he goes round schools and village halls with a computer PowerPoint presentation.

Recently, he spent five days in the Irish Republic advising a conservation organisation on how to manage their peat moorland and reestablish the Red Grouse, which is now extinct in Ireland.

His employer, George Winn-Darley, expresses his admiration.

“He’s trumpeted the moorland conservation message to tens of thousands of individuals at both local events and at international conservation forums.

“He regularly holds well-attended see-for-yourself open days on the moor, and his award is a great accolade.”

Professor David Bellamy came along for the presentation.

One of our best known botanists, he became an environmental campaigner in the Sixties when the term had yet to be invented and is a veteran of some 400 television programmes. He describes the conservation work on Spaunton Moor as “an example for others to follow”.

He adds: “If we didn’t have gamekeepers we wouldn’t have an awful lot of wildlife. I’ve always greatly admired them. If I had my time over again I’d come back as a gamekeeper.”

Gamekeeper’s top trophy

The Bellamy Trophy is the most prestigious national award for gamekeepers who promote countryside conservation and education.

The National Gamekeepers’ Organisation (NGO) was founded in 1997 by a group of gamekeepers who felt that their profession was threatened.

The unusual trophy is crafted from bog oak thousands of years old.

David Bellamy, now 79, is a former professor at Durham University.

For many years, he was one of the best-known faces of nature conservation in Britain. He lives in the North Pennines.