Why the value of gamekeepers should not be lost

Gamekeeper Jimmy Brough at Rosedale.  Pictures: Simon Hulme
Gamekeeper Jimmy Brough at Rosedale. Pictures: Simon Hulme
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Purple heather will once again provide eager daytrippers and holidaymakers with photo opportunities on the North York Moors this summer. It is one of Yorkshire’s great spectacles that brings visitors back each year to marvel at vivid landscape that is home to wild grouse, sheep and so much more.

Those who visit sporadically may not be aware that this sea of colour is not a matter of nature taking its course but comes about by careful tending and arduous management. That’s just one of the reasons why the North York Moors Moorland Organisation was formed by moorland shooting estates in 2015. There are other similar organisations throughout the UK.

Gamekeepers burn the heather, at Rosedale.

Gamekeepers burn the heather, at Rosedale.

Jimmy Brough, Michael Wearmouth and Ben Mountain are three of five gamekeepers employed on the Rosedale and Westerdale Estate that runs to 11,500 acres where they manage the moors for grouse and many species of bird including curlew, golden plover and lapwing by keeping the vermin population under control and burning heather to create the right habitat for birds to continue thriving.

Visit the moors between October and March and you will often see plumes of burning moorland. Jimmy, Michael and Ben believe the Moorland Organisation getting the message across about what they do is particularly necessary right now given the attacks from the likes of Springwatch TV presenter Chris Packham who they, and many other country pursuits enthusiasts including Sir Ian Botham, feel has used his position to undermine their way of life.

“Mr Packham and others who don’t understand shooting at all are trying to make everybody hate us,” says Michael. “We’re trying to show that what we are doing is a good thing and that without us the countryside would be in a far worse state. My father has been involved in keepering all his life and I’d have been lost if I hadn’t taken up the profession.

“Eight years ago when Jimmy and I came to Rosedale all gamekeepers like us went about our job normally, just getting on with the work on the estate, but now it’s all changed. Campaigners who are intent on getting shooting banned have been continuously getting their words in and we’ve not been fighting back. We’ve not been given a free platform to get to millions of viewers either, which Mr Packham has and in our opinion has abused the privileged position for his own sentiments.

A fine red grouse, feeding on heather.

A fine red grouse, feeding on heather.

“We’ve now got to the stage where we can’t afford to be quiet and if we don’t say anything there is a danger that his and others’ words will just bulldoze us out of the way.

“We’re now trying to promote what we do and why we do it. We’ve had great success at shows with demonstrations on how to run a beating line and explaining why we burn heather and control such as stoats and weasels. People really are interested and want to know and learn more. Not everyone feels the same as Mr Packham. It has been really quite refreshing.”

Jimmy and Michael are cousins and both come from families that have strong gamekeeping roots near Eggleston in County Durham. Their experience and knowledge of the moors is what creates that purple glow in the summer and provides the habitat for grouse to thrive. Without their management the gamekeepers are in no doubt that there would be far less grouse, far less colour and the landscape would be in a far worse condition.

“A lot of people come on to these moors and think they will always look like they do with or without us but what they won’t be aware of is that we have sprayed and continue to spray thousands of acres of bracken to keep it under control. It has no useful purpose and would have taken over the moor by now if we hadn’t sprayed it. If we didn’t burn the heather it would grow too tall and that would mean it would not bloom at all. It would not be purple but brown. The moors would just look like a wilderness.

“If the bracken and heather were left to their own devices there would be no bird life up here as neither is good for birds and the sheep are simply not interested in eating long heather that is about 3ft tall. We burn it off in highly controlled areas when dry and to strict regulations over designated acreages. The regenerated young shoots that come through are ideal for the grouse and sheep.”

The grouse shooting season starts a little later than the Glorious Twelfth up in Rosedale.

“Our season gets under way in September when the birds are more mature,” says Jimmy who believes the anti-shooting lobby does not understand countryside management.

“Those who managed to force the ban on hunting have now moved on to trying to get driven grouse shooting banned, but those same people love going up on the moor to see birds flying about. What we do actually keeps birds flying year on year.

“Shooting doesn’t make species extinct, it is simply another method of culling so that the population suits the moors. It’s frustrating that some who enjoy the moors don’t enjoy what it takes to keep it looking that way and without shooting estates such as ours running it as a business the moors would look much more bland, there would be no colour and no red grouse.”