High Abbotside - Return of a forgotten moor

High Abbotside

Well known for his achievements at Wemmergill, Michael Cannon has also applied the Midas touch to Stags Fell and High Abbotside, the restoration of which is a remarkable story, as Adrian Blundell discovered.

One man's challenge is another's hopeless case. Fortunately for the prospects of High Abbotside Moor in North Yorkshire two people who relish a challenge - keeper Paul Starsmore and businessman Michael Cannon - were brought together 12 years ago in common cause.  

Back in the 1930s High Abbotside had boasted a respectable grouse population allowing for 100+ brace bags, but the rot set in after the Second World War because, as Paul explained: “It was practicality, if you could put sheep on your ground back then you did, but that was it for the grouse”.

When local solicitor Richard Johnson bought the moor and the neighbouring Stags Fell in 1981, High Abbotside had almost no heather and a good day might see three or four brace in the bag. “There's a school of thought that says cut sheep numbers and things might right themselves,” he explained, “but if High Abbotside wasn't to be forgotten as a grouse moor it was obvious that meaningful rejuvenation required more drastic long term action”. 

His first step was to involve pub chain entrepreneur and passionate grouse Shot Michael Cannon as a partner who would be prepared to back his passion for shooting to the hilt. And when ‘Mr. C', as he's known, took an interest in High Abbotside in 1997, Richard's next task was to find a keeper with a similar passion and determination.

The search was completed when shooting's jungle drums alerted Paul Starsmore, who took a good look at the moor before sitting down with Richard to share their views on how things might progress. Working with grouse since leaving school on a YTS training scheme, Paul had plenty of experience but despite previous jobs promising the opportunity to make a real impact, someone willing to make the significant changes and sacrifices necessary had never materialised.  

Reversing locally accepted wisdom that High Abbotside was a basket case was never going to be easy but despite any pessimism Paul didn't want to be “just stepping into another man's shoes and carrying on what was there”. 

Walking High Abbotside's 6,000 acres he recognised the challenge that he'd wanted, being faced with one fenced off heather allotment of 150 acres on Cotter Top, a “few more scattered bits of heather” and 200 acres on the higher ground of Hood Rigg. It wasn't going to be easy - although agreements had been reached to see sheep excluded it hadn't made a real difference, and to make matters worse a soil analysis showed that the seed bed no longer existed. The only way forward was to consider re-seeding and Richard brought in heather regeneration guru Geoff Eyre from Derbyshire for advice.

“We started on a small scale in 100 acre blocks,” explained Paul. “We followed the accepted route by treating with glyphosate, spraying on heather seed in a water solution and burning off the dead grass”. But whilst that seemed to work initially, the High Abbotside territory of cotton grass is quite different to Derbyshire where molinia or ‘moor grass' proliferates.  The first winter was a disaster as 99 per cent of their one inch high seedlings were lost, as frost heave separated the peat layers and pulled out their roots.

The solution was provided by a suggestion from ‘Mr. C' who was keen to see progress. Drainage furrows, created with a single bladed forestry plough were cut into test areas of the moor, “and boy did we get some flack for it initially,” says Paul. “But the idea was that we created heather protection ridges, making a series of wind breaks with micro-climates where the heather seedlings could take hold.  The big fear was that we'd drain the moor but that would have been self-defeating, destroying our habitat. We created blind ditches that retained the water on the moor and over time they've filled with sphagnum moss”.

Did that work? Paul sums the results up in a word: “Magic!”

With the successful tests behind them the methods were applied across a number of wider areas, although the team were careful to leave SSSIs and other sensitive areas untouched.

So, now ten-plus years later heather is returning with a vengeance. But what about the grouse? I joined a day when Michael Cannon and a group of friends were shooting. We climbed aboard the Hagglund all-terrain vehicles that have helped open the moor up and with ‘Mr. C' as chauffer we rumbled up into the glorious scenery of Cotter Top overlooking Yorkshire's Three Peaks.  

Much as the sceptics would have doubted me seeing any grouse, as the first drive brought coveys whistling around Tony Biker's butt I found it hard to believe that anyone had written the place off. Tony and his loader, Neil Colver, were kept busy with coveys that would have done almost any moor proud. It was a story repeated on the second drive.

A refreshment break was my chance for Paul to show me the protection ridges close to and as we headed for the third drive we were stepping over channels where strong new heather evidenced success.

Standing in a gully underneath Sally Cannon's butt at the next drive I reflected what a difference her husband's single-minded commitment to success had made to his shooting as well as his business interests. She and Ross Campbell Hill in the next butt enjoyed coveys that crested the short horizon in classic exocet style. Fast reactions paid handsomely and with the ground allowing clear shooting to front and rear of the butts, Ross made full use of his double guns in a personal best drive of the day.

After a lunch at Simonstone Hall that on another day might have tempted us to linger, we climbed aboard the Hagglunds once again and headed up onto Fossdale, with Ross assuring me that we were spending the afternoon on his favourite moor. 

I could see what he meant. The scenery was superb and the afternoon drives were as good as the morning - it was clear that Paul's claim of 80/90 brace days were justified (the day's bag was 66½ brace). “We could kill more,” he told me, “but we're happy with that for now”.  And of course whilst grouse numbers are theoretically the raison d'être of the regeneration, the abundant curlew, golden plover, dunlin and skylarks, together with short eared owls and merlin, prove that the whole moorland environment is in good health. This is backed up by the increase of blackgame, where numbers appearing at the lek are now reaching 70+ birds.

Could it be done anywhere? A flexible approach is clearly necessary. Ploughing wasn't appropriate everywhere and some areas have been scarified with a modified pasture topper before glysophate clearance, seed application and burning. All of the areas needing regeneration have now been done and Paul and his underkeeper Amy Lucas are managing it like any other moor. Even relatively new areas of heather that have reached 6-8" in just five years are now being burned back to get the moor back into a traditional management cycle.

As we drove back down the hill I pressed Paul to answer the million dollar question. “Yes it could be done almost anywhere,” was the considered answer, “but I doubt that anyone else in the country would have taken on such a forgotten moor on and done what Mr. C has...”

Special farewell     

Warm and interesting personalities make a good shoot day great. Ross Campbell Hill (pictured), a High Abbotside regular, was such a man. Sadly on April 4 Ross died suddenly after a short illness, aged 57 years. 

Totally committed to fieldsports, he was chairman of the Gloucestershire Campaign for Shooting. His passion was such that he chose the Fossdale lunch hut for his recent wedding reception in March and his ashes will be scattered in a favourite grouse butt nearby.

Ross will be sorely missed by his wife Raqui, son Hugo and everyone who met him in the shooting field.

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