Nairnside Grouse Moor
I was given the opportunity to visit some grouse moors in the Scottish Highlands. The purpose of my visit was to see the work that goes on to keep and run a successful grouse moor. Both moors were in the Inverness area, one is managed as a moor specifically for falconry, and the other as a small-scale driven grouse shoot.
On arriving we made our way up to the first moor just outside Inverness. People from all over the world come to Nairnside to fly their falcons at what is one of the most difficult quarries in the UK. We drove up onto the hill in two 4 wheel drive vehicles this is the only way to reach the grouse along this track. My host Nick-Havenamart tells me: “A week ago the bad weather and power of the subsequent flood water pouring off the hill took most of the track with it, since then I have been working to restore it for the season.” Nick and his wife Lyn spend all of the grouse season in Scotland flying his 4 peregrines and also having friends and business clients over to hawk in over 3500 acres of some of the most breath taking countryside I have ever seen.
But this does not come without lots of work to ensure the grouse stay there. Unlike pheasant and partridge that can be reared up to an age and then released onto the land in an effort to restock or add to the natural populations grouse cannot.
“The moor needs good land management to maintain it and guarantee the grouse have food and water on it, this ensures the future of grouse numbers. Many moors have been allowed to become overgrown and choked by encroaching grasses and self-seeding pine trees which ruins the heather.” Nick continued: “in the old days cattle and sheep grazed the moor which controlled these plants, stimulating new growth in the heather, and they also deposited dung which attracted insects that the young grouse need at the beginning of their life as well as sweep up ticks that live on the moor that are hazardous to grouse populations.”
Nick spends most of his time throughout the year working up on the moor, cutting the heather with a Softrak. This is a mean piece of kit that glides across the heather without damaging it, and cutting the old woody plants out to stimulate new growth. This can also be done by burning, and you can see areas of the moor are charred where a fire has been set. Nick showed me how the heather grows back in these areas and explains: “The grouse need to feed on the young heather shoots and by burning and cutting we ensure that all the birds, including the young ones, can reach this food. Grouse have become very specialised feeders and heather makes up a massive part of their diet. It’s incredible to think that they can survive in such an environment on the hill where temperatures can fall to –20 degrees in the winter on a plant that has all the nutritional value of Astro Turf.”
As we walk over the moor Nick points out small mounds of peat that have been dug out and piled up in different places. When we approach one I can see that where the peat has been taken a small pool of water has formed “by doing this we make watering holes for the grouse. We also place grit in a small tray on the peat mound and, as you can see, the heather has been burnt and cut around the area so that the grouse have everything they need food, water and grit in this area. The idea is that male grouse (cocks) will take over these areas as a territory and call in females to breed, setting up family groups all over the moor.” This seems to be working at Nairnside and they have gone from no grouse to respectable numbers last year however grouse numbers fluctuate from year to year, and this year has seen a drop in numbers. Nobody knows the reason, it just happens from time to time. After seeing the work Nick puts in to the moor I have renewed respect for the Keepers that work on the hill. They have a tough job that seems to be all year round and although they work in an environment that is as beautiful, it can be dangerous as grouse live at high altitudes not always accessible by road, and where the weather can roll in very quickly and catch you unawares. I have been on a moor and watched snow come in from afar hit the hill and produce 3 foot snow drifts in less than an hour - this place is truly owe-inspiring and I can easily see why the Scots are so passionate about their countryside Nairnside has got to be one of the most fantastically beautiful places I have ever been, standing on the hill at 2000 foot above sea level looking out over the moor carpeted by the purple flowers of the heather, with the evening sun bathing everything in warm reddish glow as if warning us that autumn is on the way. And then watching a peregrine swoop at red grouse from a phenomenal height was like being in heaven, even more so as the grouse evaded the peregrine and flew away. This was a good day and I am so glad I had a chance to experience it.