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Master of the moor
For more than two decades, gamekeeper George Thompson has been looking after heather moorland on the North York Moors. MATT CLARK went to meet him.
GEORGE Thompson peers across the looming expanse of Spaunton Moor and smiles in satisfaction. A family of grouse are darting through the still green heather and without George they wouldn’t be here.
As far as the eye can see this is his domain: 7,000 acres of moorland heather and it’s his job to look after the birds that live there.
Back in 1991 George fulfilled a life-long ambition to become a gamekeeper and was promoted to head keeper at the Spaunton Estate eight years later.
Since then, thanks to the care and management of the moor owners and their keepers, the moor has been designated a site of special scientific interest in order to protect rare birds such as the merlin and golden plover, for whom the moor is one of the last safe breeding havens in the country.
Not that it’s a purely philanthropic exercise. Spaunton makes its living from grouse shooting and heather moorland is the bird’s natural habitat. But it’s rarer than rainforest.
The lack of heather is caused by over-grazing by sheep and forestation, but it’s less rare these days at Spaunton. George has reclaimed vast tracts of land once infested with bracken back into heather, which is a vital part of the red grouse’s diet as well as its nesting ground.
The problem with bracken is that when it is sporulating, the spores can be breathed in, causing similar symptoms to breathing in asbestos. Clearly, it is wise to avoid this.
So George pioneered his bracken management programme, firstly by getting a helicopter to spray the moor, then by killing the residue on foot and quad bike.
It’s a never-ending battle, but George has cracked it. Now academics consult him, his advice is widely sought, and he won the coveted gamekeeper of the year award.
“I was embarrassed to start with,” he says. “At first I didn’t want anything to do with it. Then I thought hang on a minute, for moorland keepers this is a trumpet to blow. It was my opportunity to say I’m proud of what we’ve done; moorland game keepers are the best conservationists you’ll ever meet.”
This year George’s clarion call won him the Bellamy Trophy for promoting countryside, conservation and education.
It’s all a far cry from his previous job on the oil rigs, even further from a childhood spent in Middlesbrough. Back then all he could think about was the rolling heather moors in the distance. A place of tranquillity, fresh air and stillness, a world away from the crowded streets of his smoky home town.
The North York Moors was the only place he wanted to be and working as a gamekeeper was the only thing he wanted to do.
“I was born on a council estate and left school at 16. I don’t know why I wanted to be a gamekeeper. My father used to bring me to Rosedale for holidays and I would climb trees and try to catch rabbits with snares to cook on the campfire.
“I suppose there was just this big attraction to be on the moors.”
Red grouse are found only in the UK – nowhere else in the world. Were it not for the efforts of grouse moor managers they would soon become rare.
Paradoxically, it’s shooting that keeps the bird off the endangered species list and on actively managed moors, grouse numbers can be high. There are enough to shoot without threatening the breeding population.
“My job is to produce a harvestable surplus of truly wild game. But on the back of that, wading birds, nightjars and every other species nesting here are enjoying a safe environment. One that is created by the moor keeper.”
His job also includes burning patches of old heather, to produce a patchwork of young nutritious shoots; tending the bridleways, the streams and the plant life.
Without George’s intervention, predators would increase, bracken would envelope the moor and the rare birds would again become endangered on Spaunton Estate.
“It’s a form of farming. We manage the moor to produce grouse and sell the surplus which is the shooting.
“But if we weren’t allowed to shoot them, I don’t think land owners would be keen on spending the vast amount of money it takes to manage the moors.”
Not many make a profit. George says the owners do it because they are proud to own a grouse moor and see it as their duty is to look after it.
Despite selling shoot days though, they are often lucky to break even. The thrill of grouse shooting is that the birds are notoriously tricky little blighters. They are wild, they fly fast and they fly low – very, very low.
In Britain we have 100 per cent of the world’s red grouse population and it is known as the king of game birds; the most difficult bird you could ever wish to fire a gun at. No wonder they are in such demand, providing excellent sport and millions of pounds of much-needed income into the rural economy once the tourists have gone.
“If you play tennis you would want to play at Wimbledon,” says George. “If you play golf you would want to play at St Andrews and if you shoot, you want to shoot on a grouse moor.”
Twelfth day marks start of season...
The Glorious 12th heralds the grouse shooting season and for sportsmen and women, it holds as much sway as cup final day. Most shoots take place in a formal setting with birds driven over shooters who often stand in butts sunk into the moorland.
Grouse shooting can also be undertaken by ‘walking up’ grouse over pointers, or by flushing the birds with dogs.
This is a traditional sport and one that was supplanted by formal driven shooting in the late nineteenth century. Now it is seeing resurgence in popularity; indeed, driven grouse shooting is now the only commercially viable way to run a grouse moor.
Grouse shooting on the North Yorkshire Moors is available at Spaunton Moor, Bransdale Moor and Danby Moor.
In the Yorkshire Dales grouse shoots are held at Gunnerside, Bolton Abbey, Ripley Castle and at the Swinton Park Estate.
There is a strict code of conduct governing behaviour on the moor for both safety and etiquette.
This year the Glorious 12th is a Sunday and many shoots will not start until the day after. The season lasts until December 10.
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