Grouse at Glenogil
Under the tutelage of grouse wizard Mark Osborne, Glenogil estate in the Angus Glens has seen a remarkable resurgence in recent years. Lord James Percy looks at what it has taken.
When the waters receded from the great flood of biblical times, surely Noah stopped by the Angus Glens and tipped out a pair of grouse in this mystical place.
Every grouse moor from Derbyshire to Sutherland has its own particular and special magic, but there is something about the Angus Glens which stirs something even deeper within. Perhaps it has to do with the romance of Victorian days, when entire generations of sportsmen, their wives, children, servants, dogs and all travelled north in search of grouse and salmon. Weeks and weeks of sport and lodge life, the grime and smog of London forgotten in a haze of fresh air and claret - a perfect holiday.
Back in those days, and indeed until the end of the 20th century, the Dalhousie moors of Invermark, Hunthill, Gannochy and Millden were legendary and comprised a large area of the Angus Glens. There is a chart in the lodge at Invermark that shows how huge the annual bags of grouse were. 9,600 brace at Millden, 5,000 brace at Hunthill, 4,000 brace at Gannochy and so on. To the south Lord Airlie's moors of Glen Clova and Glen Moy had a day of over 400 brace in the 1960s.
Aside from overgrazing pressure from sheep in places, the great moors of England have continued, in the main, to go from strength to strength with post war records being broken once, twice or even thrice in the last 15 years. Conversely the moors of central and northern Scotland have suffered terribly in the face of afforestation, huge expansion in deer population, tick proliferation and manpower reduction as revenues decreased. Louping ill - a virus carried by sheep, hares and deer and transmitted through ticks can cause up to 80% chick mortality - is present in Angus and indeed much of the rest of Scotland, but it is the suppressing, rather than the underlying, factor.
It seems likely that the key factor causing the decline in grouse populations is the change in ratio of keepers:predators. In addition, with reduced manpower the time spent with pheasants, deer or estate maintenance is also sometimes an unavoidable pull away from the moor. The number of keepers that produced huge numbers of grouse 50 years ago is simply not enough today to effectively keep predators in check to produce a shootable surplus of grouse.
There are far more predators around now, an unending cohort of vermin that wages war on grouse 24/7, 365 days a year. Combine this with millions of ticks, 1000's of deer and it is a tough call to produce lots of grouse. Of course this means a huge investment in men, machinery and time and it requires a very deep pocket indeed to afford the optimum level of keepers. Grouse are king, but what about the credit crunch, school fees, the roof of the lodge and any number of cash calls that can and do get in the way of employing an army of fine men? It is also important to remember that not all owners wish to produce large quantities of grouse, perhaps they are not of a sporting leaning or prefer stalking or it is simply not practical or possible to make grouse production a priority.
The start of the 21st Century saw grouse numbers in the Angus Glens drop below a critical mass as bad hatches due to extreme weather finished the job that ticks and predators had started. But this is not where the story ends - in 2004 an estate called Glenogil came on the market and was bought by a young wizard financier called John Dodd.
His advisor, the famous grouse man Mark Osborne (100% track record, failure not an option) persuaded Dodd, whose business operated out of Edinburgh, that Glenogil, the eastern most moor in Angus, could be made great again, and serve as his highland home for his young bride and family.
Make no mistake, even the great Osborne admitted that, of all his projects, every single one of which has produced results for their owners beyond their wildest dreams, this one may have proved just too difficult.
To give the grouse a chance the task was to reduce predators, ticks and improve the heather habitat. The deer, of which several thousand used to descend on Glenogil in the winter, were a major problem. Lousy with ticks, lying up in the shelter and eating the heather right back. There were so many deer that only one of the three grouse beats had any sheep on the hill, and the habitat on sheltered slopes was being badly degraded.
The first step was to electric fence the boundary to keep the marauding deer out. This was a serious undertaking and a huge expense as the fence extends to several miles. Once the deer (the major tick host) was removed, there was immediate improvement to the heather. The second step was to introduce a flock of black faced wethers - about 2,500 - to be used as a management tool in the eradiction of ticks. The sheep naturally graze the heather and grasses, but with the movement of their “licks” of food and vitamin supplement blocks, the flock can graze in a more uniform fashion across and up the hills, rather than hanging about in the bottoms.
These sheep are then dipped seven or eight times a year and treated with a pour-on tick killer called dysect. Each treatment lasts 4 to 6 weeks. As the sheep move across the moor grazing naturally they are also acting as mops, sweeping up ticks as they go which then die in the fleece having bitten the sheep. The Game Conservancy has done much research into tick dynamics and the effectively proved theory is that steadily and with removal of other vectors such as deer and hares, the tick cycle can be broken as no feeding occurs to bloat the tick. If a tick population cannot feed, drop off and lay eggs then it cannot flourish. At the same time the existing population of ticks is reduced as the treated sheep pick them up as they brush past bracken, heather and grass.
So, the deer are out, the ticks are being reduced, the sheep are doing their job. What else does the school of Osborne demand above all else? Keepers, good ones and plenty of them. Dodd, who we shall rightly call the Laird, has rented a further three beats of Glen Moy and Nathro and has employed an army of keen men. Each beat keeper looks after 2,600 acres, give or take. Their task is to reduce the foxes, stoats, weasels, rats, crows, hoodies and magpies as far as possible. In addition any marauding deer, either red or roe, are also controlled along with the other major tick carrier, hares.
To see the dedication of Philip Herd and his team of lads is quite something. Osborne's ability to choose and motivate the right men is the key to his success as the country's foremost grouse advisor. It is no accident that his men remain loyal to him - he is firm, fair, single minded and supportive. The men get the best of gear, good houses, kennels, good trucks and a fair financial package. The downside is that he does not regard pleas of poverty from any grouse moor owner as a valid excuse! Happily the wizard brain, leadership and passion of his principle Dodd means that Glenogil is well funded and carried forward with tremendous enthusiasm.
Beyond the tick and predator control there has been a major road building push, with a man employed full time on Dodd's machine. Roads play a vital role in moor management because keepers can use their time more efficiently, check their traps and carry out heather burning with the benefit of having vehicles with cutting and/or water equipment nearby. The 200 metre grid gritting system (grouse need grit for their gizzards to grind up the heather that they eat) requires constant servicing as well, and a moor the size of this requires many tonnes of grit. Philip and his team have burnt large fires in the early stages of the project because there was so much rank long heather after years of little burning. Once the young heather comes through to a burnable height they will then go for the 30 yard wide strips and break up the bigger fires. As more young heather grows, so the sheep will spread further across the hill. From a tick point of view, young recently burnt heather holds the least number of ticks. Bracken holds the most ticks but a big eradication programme by aerial spraying at Glenogil has got rid of most of it.
Glenogil was still shooting up to a 1,000 brace a year in the 1970's but when the new laird came along in 2004 there was a very low stock. It is amazing how grouse will respond to the correct management, but they must be given time to reach a good stocking level. Osborne argues that overshooting has been another key factor in the decline of grouse numbers over much of Scotland, primarily because of the higher mortality in winter on top of the autumn shooting. With the right conditions, grouse will flourish and increase exponentially - it may seem obvious but they cannot do that if they are hanging up in the game larder!
So for the first three years Philip has only allowed the boss a glimpse of the future, but one day in 2007 they shot the magnificent total of 136 brace in a day. They had seen a nice lot of grouse and the temptation would be to have another day or two but the experience of Phil, armed with the knowledge that Scottish grouse can suffer heavy losses to predators over winter meant that a line was drawn and no more shooting was allowed. Certain “conservation” bodies level accusations of monoculture and single species favouritism, drawing a picture that a grouse moor is wall to wall heather with nothing living bar grouse which well heeled punters in 4x4's attempt to bowl over. Of course there is an element of the latter and very important economically it is too, but when you see grouse, dippers, a peregrine, buzzards, black game, an osprey, pipits, wheatears, larks, golden plover, a sea eagle and any number of other species in a riot of biodiversity that just proves that a grouse moor is so much more than just a “grouse” moor. Delivering real conservation at the coal face is the nuclear warhead in the sporting fraternity's arsenal of scientific and public relations weapons.
A year on and the spring and summer of 2008 in the Angus Glens was cold but relatively kind to the grouse at Glenogil. Philip gave the nod to Osborne. Osborne (always reluctantly as I am sure he would just like to sit, unarmed, in the butts and savour the fruits of his management by looking at vast packs of grouse and rolling about in young tick free heather) gave the nod to Dodd. The Laird then gave the nod to some of his mates to gather at Glenogil, end of August, Auchnacree lodge.
Quite a big night, velvet claret and in a flash it is the morning of the shoot. The great day had dawned, windy, bright with the scent of pine and heather (and dog shit) wafting on the breeze. It is impossible to paint a picture in words of the beauty of the Angus Glens nor adequately describe the atmosphere of the days in question.
You could cut the anticipation with a knife. The Laird, like the rest of us, tweed and leather replacing Gucci jeans and diamond earring, was beside himself with nerves and excitement. A few miles in a Land Rover and a stiff walk to the first line of butts that looked over a vista that could only be described as heaven on earth.
The drives were huge, this is big country, and an army of local folk, visiting keepers and inquisitive neighbours helped to bring in great sweeps of heather and bilberry clad moor skilfully towards the carefully sighted lines of butts. And there were grouse. In places there were packs of 40's and 50's. One single drive gave 50 brace - could that be the defining moment in the fortunes of the Angus Glens? The sense of achievement that everybody had was bubbling over - four years of hard work and huge expense had paid off. The great project had worked. A sneaky peep at the Laird Dodd and you could see the pride beneath the far away look.
In three days' shooting, over 400 brace! The best day was 167 brace.
Down at the game larder the excitement and satisfaction of the keepers that their hard work had paid off was plain to see. The Laird and Osborne looked like they had won Olympic gold and the credit must go to them, Philip Herd and his team. This was a remarkable feat of leadership, management, keepering and faith in this religion of grouse. With a fair wind Glenogil will go from strength to strength and from this example many will take heart that there is light at the end of the tunnel for Scottish grouse.