Sowing the seed at Howden Moor


Howden Moor

Mike Barnes reports on how the pioneering work of Geoff Eyre has opened up a new frontier of grouse moor restoration in recent years.

It is now over 20 years since Geoff Eyre took on the sporting lease of the 6,850 acre Howden Moor from the National Trust in Derbyshire's Peak District. It was a decision motivated by a passion for all wildlife, and grouse in particular

Since that time not only has he transformed the moorland habitat of his own particular area, but seen directly the restoration of 40 square miles of heather across the north of England and into Scotland. Along the way he has won awards (including the ‘Purdey'), seen a plethora of birdlife return to the moor, advised countless others, created special new seed harvesting machines, and been awarded an honorary doctorate by Liverpool University. And seduced thousands of walkers with wonderful far reaching swathes of purple heather.

To do all of these things would take a man with a unique set of talents, tenacity being one of them. Well, Geoff is just such a man.

From a farming family spanning several generations, he trained as an agronomist before working for Gartons of Warrington, the world's first scientific plant breeding company. He then returned home to farm and run the family agricultural merchant business, founded by his great grandfather 125 years ago at the once water-powered mill near his home in Brough. This is now largely run by Geoff and wife Janet's children, Rachael and Robert, leaving him free to pursue his heather regeneration interests, which also includes one of his other great loves - machinery design. A man of many talents he won the Royal Agricultural Society's Machinery award for his Traileyre system, a self-loading trailer designed to collect round or square bales.

This penchant for design has come into its own with his invention of a range of harvesters to collect the heather seed, which are now being used widely.

It must be stressed that his ambitions and possibilities for the moor should first and foremost be set against its location i.e. the Peak District where there are some two million visitors a year to the Fairholmes Visitor Centre. Even the keenest of sportsmen would have dismissed out of hand the idea of restoring a grouse moor in such a location. Not Geoff.

He takes up the story: “An ESA (Environmentally Sensitive Areas) programme outlined the importance of heather cover in supporting a diverse number of species. Whilst some attempt was made to reverse heather loss, I asked if I could try a different approach.”

His first major breakthrough came in identifying the cause of poor seed germination.

“I got the idea to use the smoke as a way of vernalising seed back in 1993, this initially came from studies in South Africa where they thought it was fire that stimulated seed germination and it appeared whilst some seeds were helped by fire, others from the smoke.

“At first I smouldered heather brash in an incinerator and used a fan to blow the smoke through the seeds, but the fan got covered in a tar which burnt the motor out. I then tried a homemade Leipzig condenser, allowing smoke to flow between two radiators with cold water running through them, a solution dripped off and I collected it. By trying several dilution rates with water, I could soak the pure seed (which can be likened to pepper dust) and the seed could either be sprayed on in water or dried to be applied later as it ‘remembered' it had been treated. I did my own propagation trials and seed trays with treated seed showed full vegetation cover against just a few from the untreated. A follow up trial with Aberystwyth University showed the 5% normal seed germination from untreated seed (30 days) could be increased to 80% plus in 30-day trials. This allowed harvested seed to go a lot further, so larger areas could be seeded. The added bonus from treated seed was the fact it stopped midge larvae eating the seeds or seedlings, very much like a cereal seed dressing effect. In the wild, larvae are eating seeds so after a fire it would appear that seeds get help against pests (perhaps this is a world wide phenomena - I have seen no research!).”

The seed is harvested from late autumn into winter, as weather permits, and is taken back to the farm for drying and removal from flowers. The seed is very tiny - 40,000 seeds per gram.

“The hardest task was to convince English Nature officers that the work was sustainable. The National Trust commissioned a report then allowed the project to continue. I could have easily thrown in the towel as there was a lot of pessimism in what I was attempting. It's a good job it worked - otherwise I would have definitely had egg on my face!” he smiles.

At Howden like many other moors, he was faced with huge areas of bracken, molinia and nardus. “ To convert to a heath mix the National Trust helped with fencing off the stock for four years, the new vegetation is now carrying an increase in stock which also prevents scrub encroachment.

Controlled heather burning has been another key factor. Cool burning is the term now used. “Many conservationists now use my term of cool burning, which is what all moorland keepers do in controlled burns - shepherds would criticise this practice as it would not bare the ground for grazing. I burnt with shepherds 45 years ago and the only way of lighting a fire was a small paraffin fuelled wick. It needed to be very dry and often the whole hill would burn hot and smoulder, and in hindsight shepherds burning to gain more grass (war time and after) than heath led to more bracken and poor digestable grasses, such as molinia and nardus (seen throughout the uplands now as counter productive).

“My term of cool burning (1989) arose from starting fires on poor days by the use of diesel flame thrower assistance to light fires. This allowed an extra 50% more burning days in a season and added control. Initially scorned on as not clearing the vegetation, it is now accepted as an environmental way, as the fire doesn't damage the surface mossy layer. This method quickly moved through the Peak District as keepers could see neighbours burning on poor days.” It is now accepted throughout the moorland network as the way forward to an environmentally friendly burning practice, that can also reduce wildfire risk.

Geoff and his keeper spent countless days on seed collections, cutting, spraying, burning the regeneration area, this is apart from the endless hours developing machines to enable the project to move on a large moorland scale.

The molinia/ nardus /bracken having been sprayed off in July is then burnt in August/September using a Natural England out of season licence. One of Geoff's machines is normally used to apply seed during the winter early spring but sometimes a helicopter, which with 12 metre booms can cover a hectare in a minute.

The combination of improved seed germination, the system of cool burn and access by machines has opened up swathes of moorland which had all but been forgotten and dismissed as inaccessible. A good example is High Abbotside (page 64) where over 5,000 acres have been restored. Geoff himself at Howden at the outset had little more than 2,000 acres with any heather - now it's over double that figure. And in effect five moors have been brought together.

“I truly believe that hundreds of thousands of acres could be improved and we could double the moorland bird life in Britain. As I get older the more I realise how fine a line wildlife is hanging on. Of course the habitat improvement has to be supported by good keepering.” He adds that the most vulnerable areas are the smaller 200-400 acre moors, where here is not the resource for restoration or full time keepering.

Howden's headkeeper Glenn Brown is assisted by apprentice underkeeper Rory O'Connell. A second keeper was needed following the restoration of heather to look after what amounted to double the original acreage of heather. “Glenn has done a brilliant job.” Added Geoff. “Where they have been particularly successful is in controlling stoats / weasels and recently mink. This in turn has meant more voles on which the likes of short-eared owls will feed - easier pickings than young grouse chicks whose parents will fight like mad.”

There is a thriving birdlife at Howden, including a third of the Peak District's ring ouzels. Big numbers of golden plover, curlew, lapwings and an increasing number of black game. In fact all typical moorland birds. And Geoff has given talks to birdwatching clubs. There is an increasing number of peregrines and merlins, and a high density of goshawks, and relative newcomers buzzards and ravens! “I had never seen a raven until 10 years ago - now we seem to have lots of them.”

Happily they also now have a very good stock of grouse. All shooting is by syndicate, originally formed when Geoff took on the shoot. They typically enjoy bags of 50-60 brace, with a season total of 800 brace. “We are very happy with these sort of numbers, especially given the National Trust want to see high visitor numbers and low profile shooting.”

The RSPB have moors nearby with nothing like the amount of wildlife to be seen at Howden. For Geoff there is still much to do, so much barren moor to be restored. He is particularly pleased to see recent authorities using his system for peat restoration over 1,000s of acres, a formula he established many years ago through adding lime and testing some 50 varieties of seeds to see which would grow, to act as a nurse crop and create root growth that would hold the eroding peat together whilst the slower growing heather seed took root. Years later large areas of once black peat are now heath. He has now got the bit between his teeth in converting solid bracken beds back to grass or heath and early indications are outstanding, the secret is to burn if possible before spraying and again burning after spraying. Given bracken will soon cover more of Britain than wheat he feels not enough attention is paid to controlling this poisonous weed. A remarkable man. Only one blot on the horizon - his lease is up for renewal next year. Surely the National Trust will recognise that here is a flagship moor restored at little expense to the Trust and which has inspired the restoration of large tracts of precious habitat and the wildlife it supports.

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