MANY of us will need no reminder that Friday was the famous Glorious Twelfth of August which is the start of the grouse shooting season (unless the Glorious Twelfth falls on a Sunday).
The Game Act of 1831 prohibits the taking of game on Sundays or Christmas Days. The grouse shooting season continues until December 10 and is justified on the grounds that grouse need to be culled to ensure healthy stocks and the income from grouse shooting also enables estates to maintain the heather and the moors in good condition.
Grouse are essentially birds of our moorlands and uplands in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales and, to my knowledge, are not found elsewhere. There are several varieties – in this region, it is the Red Grouse that is the most numerous, although Black Grouse makes occasional appearances in the higher dales and Pennines. It is more usually found in the Highlands of Scotland and the Welsh mountains. Similar birds such as the Ptarmigan and Capercaillie are to be found in the Highlands of Scotland but also in some European mountainous regions. Ptarmigan may be found as far away as North America and the Pyrenees.
When I was a child growing up in the North York Moors, grouse were known locally as moorbods (moorbirds) and their chicks were called moorpowts. The term ‘moor’ often included large open areas of ground not necessarily supporting a heather crop but in more recent times, it seems restricted to upland areas covered with heather, sometimes locally known as ling.
Not only does the heather provide shelter for grouse both at their nests but also living away from the nest, it provides the main food supply for the grouse. Although grouse will eat small invertebrates such as crane flies, the major proportion of their diet comprises new shoots from new growing heather.
If the grouse are to survive, the heather must be maintained in top condition and this task usually falls upon the owners of local estates. Controlled burning forms part of this process because it burns off the old tough and expired layer of heather to make way for the new growth. But this annual burning, which takes place between November 1 and March 31 produces patches of burnt heather, known as swiddens or swizens, and they provoke the vital growth of new heather.
However, uncontrolled burning is disastrous to the heather. A memorable example occurred in the summer of 1976. A heat-wave, the hottest for many years, made the moorland turf, heather and peat so dry that a burning cigarette end carelessly tossed upon it, or a picnic fire left burning or even the sun shining through a broken bottle was sufficient to cause an outbreak of almost uncontrollable fire. A small breeze can soon whip the flames into a moving inferno to place at risk the heather, other plants, wildlife in all its forms from insects to birds via small creatures but also domestic animals, human accommodation such as farm houses, barns, cattle shelters and the thick layer of underlying peat which provides so much nourishment for the wild life of the moors. As some of the peat is thirty feet thick, a moorland fire can burn for months.
In the two months from June 27 until August 27, 1976 more that 1,500 fires broke out on the North York Moors, over sixty of which were classified as major outbreaks. At one stage, a wall of fire twenty feet high and a mile and a half wide swept towards Glaisdale Head, to threaten farms and homes, and it was only a dry-stone wall and a last-minute change of wind direction that halted the sweeping flames. They affected all moorland turf, stubble, grass and forestry sites. Young grouse and curlews could not escape the flames, and even humans were at risk.
Of major concern was the number of sight-seers who arrived to witness the fires and the coordinated efforts to control the blazes. In driving their vehicles into such conditions they were placing themselves and their tvehicles at risk, but also impeding the work of the gallant and unstinting fire-fighters.
Although those fires taught many lessons, the aftermath produced more surprises as nature took over the charred area. Before long, the devastated areas – something around seven square miles in area – were regenerated and life on the moors continued.
But still the tourists come to light their picnic fires, throw away their cigarette ends and leave behind their rubbish….and, by the way, I have never indulged in grouse shooting or the hunting of any other birds or animals.
THE North York Moors, the largest area of open heather in England, are at their best at this time of year with their regal coating of purple ling. To that, we can add the moors’ history, dales, wild life and endless views due to a lack of trees. Those views can be appreciated from umpteen vantage points. Examples include Young Ralph’s Cross above Castleton, and breathtaking scenes of Whitby and the North Sea from the top of Blue Bank near Sleights. There are others.
I was brought up in Glaisdale, described as cut off from the rest of the world, so it is not surprising some townspeople call us moorjocks. It’s true – we rarely leave the moors. Moorjock means a black-faced sheep and I suppose we settle into our moorland life just as those sheep are hefted (or heeafed – pronounced hee-afted) on the same moors. They don’t permanently leave their moorland even if it has no fences.
Leaving those moors to take a holiday was something I never experienced as a child. I remember one fellow from our village going off to Canada to seek a new life. Wondering whether he had gone by aircraft or ship, I asked a neighbour, “How did Stan go?” His answer was “Over that hill” as he pointed to the lofty moors. Maybe that’s when I discovered there were other worlds over that hill.
Apropos those other worlds, another hill-farmer whose wife had died was persuaded by his family to take a holiday in Switzerland. They made all the arrangements and off he went, his very first holiday apart from going to Stokesley Show. After a couple of days, his daughter rang him.
“Dad, what are the views like from your room?” she asked.
“They’d be all right if it wasn’t for all these mountains,” he replied.
In another instance, a typical moorjock farmer who had never slept away from home, was persuaded by his sister to spend a couple of weeks with her. She lived in the south of England but he agreed and, as he lived some distance from the railway station, a friend drove him to Grosmont to catch his train to York and beyond. When the pal arrived to collect him, our hero was waiting but he had no suitcase.
“Where’s your suitcase?” asked the friend.
“I don’t need one, I’m only going for couple of weeks,” was his reply.