Sonya Wiggins is on a mission. She wants to educate people about the benefits of managed grouse moor to the wider community. “There is a lot of misconception out there about what we do here,” says Sonya, who lives with husband Harvey and their two children in the middle of the stunning Grassington and Coniston estate.
Harvey is the gamekeeper of the grouse moor and Sonya is one of the co-ordinators of the Yorkshire Dales Moorland Group which flies the flag for grouse shooting. The group works to educate people, especially the younger generations, about the benefits grouse shooting brings to the Yorkshire Dales community and counter any ignorance surrounding it.
She is passionate about defending their way of life and the benefits it brings not only to the community but the wildlife that thrives in this part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. “I do get frustrated when people, particularly those in the public eye, make judgments about managed grouse moors, and yet haven’t had the decency to visit us here,” she says.
She is making particular reference to naturalist and BBC Springwatch presenter Chris Packham who has spoken out against grouse shooting and has even called for it to be banned on Ilkley Moor after dubbing it ‘environmental vandalism’.
He recently announced that he would be touring the UK and doing a ‘bioblitz’ to see what extent the nation’s species are under threat. “He says that soon nature reserves will be the only place where you can see wildlife and yet when he comes to Yorkshire he is only visiting two nature reserves,” Sonya says. “I have invited him to come here to see just what a variety of species we have here, many of which are in decline in other areas of the country.”
She is talking about the increase in curlews, lapwings and other birds which are thriving on the higher land as Harvey and his team set legal traps for their natural predators such as rats and weasels.
“People think that we are only busy during the grouse shooting season but that isn’t true. It is a very busy time of year for us at the moment,” says Sonya, who has been involved with shooting since a very early age as her grandfather had a shoot in her home county of Northamptonshire.
“I was out beating from the age of six and by the age of seven I was shooting clays,” she recalls, although her first love had four legs rather than two. “I was an equestrian and am a qualified riding instructor and travelled all over the world working for a couple of estates close to my home looking after the families’ horses. I loved it.”
After leaving school, Harvey went to work on a pheasant shoot in the south of England before moving to Cumbria to work on a grouse moor there. “He just loved working the grouse moor. Grouse are wild and you have to create the right environment for them to want to come and nest. He found it much more rewarding.”
After working in the Peak District as under gamekeeper, Harvey moved to Scotland and Sonya decided to join him, although it did mean giving up the job she loved.
“I managed to get a job working for a showjumper which involved travelling all around Europe but I decided that I really wanted to spend more time at home and I was lucky enough to find a job that I really enjoyed that didn’t involve much travel outside of Scotland,” she says.
But soon Sonya realised that it was still a long way to travel to see her parents who were still in Northamptonshire and Harvey started to look for a job as a head gamekeeper. When one came up on the Consitone and Grassington Moor, he applied and got the job. That was 12 years ago and the Wiggins have definitely made the moors their home. “Harvey used to come on holiday to the Dales with his parents and we both loved the area.”
Sonya had to give up her job and instead worked in some local hotels, having learnt secretarial and IT skills as part of her qualification as a riding instructor.
The Yorkshire Dales Moorland Group aims to tell the story of the shooting and gamekeeping community through the people who are involved with it every day of their lives – gamekeepers, their families and local businesses such as garages, butchers, restaurants, pubs and hotels who work closely with estates across the region.
She says managing moorland for grouse shooting is vitally important to remote rural communities in terms of economic, environmental and social benefits and is a lifeline for many local businesses in the Yorkshire Dales. Shooting-related tourism bolsters local trade during the winter ‘off-season’ and provides much-needed employment opportunities.
The group has 28 member estates, whose gamekeepers manage the moors and the habitats for red grouse and a wide range of ground-nesting birds and other wildlife. Sonya hopes that the group’s work will help people understand more about the benefits of the work they do.
Sonya, Harvey and their two children, six-year-old Hector and Beatrice, who has just turned four, now live in what was a former farmhouse slap bang in the middle of the 6,000 acres of grouse moor managed by Harvey and his team, surrounded by nothing but the stunning moors, former iron quarries and the burgeoning wildlife. We even had to abandon our cars at the entrance to the moor and climb aboard Sonya’s 4x4 –with good reason, as it turned out.
On the day we visit the sun is shining and the views are breathtaking, but Sonya is quick to point out that this is unusual. “A few years ago when Hector was very small we got completely snowed in, mainly by the drifts of snow that are blown across the moor and land at our front door. We started to run out of nappies and so Harvey had to walk to Hebden and came back with nappies spilling out of his rucksack.”
In the recent Beast from the East snow storms the family got snowed in for five days. “It was actually easier when Hector was little as being snowed in for five days, unable to get out with two small children, was pretty challenging – and we started to run out of wine!”
Both her children attend the local primary school in Burnsall. “It is a tiny school but it is an important part of the community and we need to support them or they will close,” says Sonya, who recently hosted a party of children from the school to show them exactly what goes on the grouse moor. She wants to educate the younger generation on all aspects of moorland management; getting children out and about learning about the countryside, plant life and bird species, as well as the potential job opportunities in the industry.
Sonya is also planning similar educational excursions with adults. “It is surprising that although people have lived in or around here all their lives, not everyone really understands what we do here and why.”