Most moors we spoke to in the spring were very pleased and bullish with the broods and sizes of broods that they were seeing, but soon heavy rain across the North of England and Scotland in the first week of June turned things for the worse, which resulted in the loss of a lot of grouse. After talking to keepers and photographers out on the moors, we knew optimism was seeping away with every day the rain continued.
As the summer progressed, the chicks came off insects and onto the heather to feed. It became clear that the grouse were not getting the nutrients and protein from the heather that they were eating. This was due to the heather being extremely stressed from lack of rain over the past two years, but also the increase of heather beetle in some areas. This year the UK saw heather beetle like we have never seen before. It spread so fast and wiped out huge areas of moorland leaving the growing grouse chicks and their parents with nothing to eat. Whole moors were bright orange rather than bright purple by August 12 and a lot of the grouse were nowhere to be seen in any decent numbers. This meant that the grouse moved to where they could find food and we were finding grouse in very unusual areas when it came to August. A large number of grouse ended up starving too.
Either way, the season got started with plenty of areas choosing not to shoot at all, others going ahead with reduced bags and programs, and others going ahead full steam. We had some lovely days across the Dales, North York Moors and North Pennines throughout the season, but at no point did we step foot onto a moor and say, “Wow, they’ve got some grouse!”
The Yorkshire Dales got off to a slow start, much the same as the year before with reduced bags in some places and certain areas producing decent numbers of grouse. Everything West of Nidderdale hardly shot although one moor we visited in that area had a very good season again with plenty of grouse and their heather was in the best condition we had seen anywhere lately. There, a nice lot of grouse turned up in the Coverdale/Masham area mid-September too and they seemed to be shooting until early November. Interestingly heather beetle was a big issue on most of these moors and yet they still supported a nice number of grouse.
The central Dales were hit and miss in August, but more grouse turned up as we moved into September. Most of the big moors had stopped shooting by the end of October though. Some carried on into November. We had some incredible days with tricky east and northerly winds but plenty of grouse to shoot at in the back end of the season on some estates.
North York Moors
The North York Moors have been amazingly consistent over the last number of years, but it was more hit and miss this year than we have seen it for a while. We know of one moor that broke its record again, but most had an average to poor year. The moors on the far east coast seemed to have a nice number of grouse and the owners have left decent stocks for next season. Other key moors which are usual household names in that part of the world hardly shot at all. This again was due to large amounts of heather beetle that rapidly spread through many estates, and the grouse just moved off. They certainly left decent stocks on all the moors rather than shooting them hard throughout October/November.
North Pennines probably had the best of it this year. We had good reports from a number of estates in that area. Again, it was patchy, but where there was grouse, there, a lot of them. A number of moors shot through October and November and from what we can gather left decent stocks of grouse on the ground for next year. They benefitted from less heather beetle and higher ground.
Scotland was patchy. Again, the early rain in June had turned to snow for a number of the higher more northern moors, and this proved deadly with reports of most chicks dying. There were grouse in certain areas and again more grouse seemed to turn up as we moved through September.
To conclude, it was another mediocre year similar to 2018, but that does not mean that good days were not enjoyed by many visitors and locals alike. We need the bad years to appreciate how lucky we all are to be involved and take part in such a wonderful, yet unpredictable, wild bird sport. We hope that the grouse are fit enough and the heather is in good enough condition to carry them through a potentially cold winter to lay in the spring and we will all be holding our breath for fair weather in late May and June.
Loren Booker (Frontiers Travel) and Edd Morrison (Dalesport)