Three keepers are battling it out for the prestigious title ‘Farmers Weekly/CLA Gamekeeper of the Year 2008’. Tessa Gates will be profiling all three in the run-up to naming the winner on 25 July – first up it’s George Thompson 

For the past 17 years George Thompson has battled with bracken on Spaunton Moor, turning what was bracken-dominated moorland into a heather-rich habitat for grouse and wildlife.

A staggering 800ha-plus (2000 acres) of bracken have been reclaimed, boosting conservation, grouse numbers, shooting income and the capital asset of this North Yorkshire estate, and the local economy.

“You need enthusiasm to tackle bracken,” says George.

He is head keeper on Spaunton Moor, 2800ha (7000 acres) owned by Mr George Winn-Darley, who lets around eight driven and two walked-up days’ grouse shooting and around 10 later days of rough shooting on the edge of the moor. Clients come from the UK and abroad.

At first the bracken was sprayed off every other year, as was recommended at the time, but bracken is not easily beaten. Annual spraying was tried and found to be much more effective, with George doing follow-up work with Asulox spray. It has proved a knockout.

“Every time I saw a frond I spot-sprayed it. I call it the Frank Bruno effect,” jokes George, who keepers single-handed, employing local casual labour as required.

“Bracken control used to take 10 weeks with 25 men now it’s done in five to seven days with five men.”

thompson man with gun game

Over-grazing and the incidence of sheep-borne louping ill and ticks, which can affect the grouse, have also been tackled. Mr Winn-Darley owns the moor but only some of the grazing rights, as it is also a registered common, and commoners can graze 6000 sheep.

George is the local “pinder”, charged with overseeing the sheep numbers and grazing rights. Reducing the number of sheep on the moor to a manageable 2500 has taken diplomacy and attractive individual grazing agreements.

“They all like George so that helps negotiations,” says Mr Winn-Darley, who has employed George since 1991 when he was taken on as an underkeeper. George was promoted about eight years later when the estate split the management of its grouse and pheasant shoots, and he became entirely responsible for the grouse moor.

“Spaunton is what is known as a black moor – it is fairly dry,” says George, who has created 70 drinking spots.

“I have cleaned out five miles of water race and created ponds off it which are used by grouse, sheep and wildlife.”

thompson man with gun game

He is gradually replacing wooden shooting hurdles with sandstone shooting butts. Built to last, the butts are topped with bilberry and “disappear” into the landscape.

An album of photographs shows the effect his management has had on the landscape of the moor – but the real result is counted in the improved grouse numbers. Bracken eradication has added an extra 250-300 brace to the annual bag (on a 10-year average) of 500-600 brace, and to the diversity of wildlife.

George has broken the post-war daily grouse bag record twice and in 2003 he broke the annual record set in 1888 by achieving 1172 brace.

Spring counts indicate this could be a good grouse year, with numbers up by about a third, but bad weather could change that. “Last year everything looked good, then the rains came and devastated the stock of young grouse,” he says.

On a damp and misty May visit, the award judges could see some of this year’s broods for themselves, spotting not only grouse chicks, but those of curlew and lapwing. Golden and green plover are prolific in the breeding season and significant numbers of ring ouzels are found on the moor.

But the bird George and his boss are most proud of is the merlin – Britain’s smallest falcon. Each year Spaunton hosts between two and five merlin nests with the best year seeing 15 chicks fledging.

thompson man with gun game

George liaises with the local merlin study group and helps to locate, ring and take DNA samples from chicks just before they fledge. Heather is at its most nutritious for grouse and sheep at about four years old but George leaves one to two-acre sites of degenerate heather for the merlin, which nest in scoops under old heather. “You need differing heights of heather for wildlife,” explains George.

Managing heather through controlled burning and keeping down predators – “crows and foxes are most trouble here” – is done primarily for the grouse, but other ground-nesting birds also benefit greatly from it.

“George is passionate about ‘his’ moor and is especially proud of all the birds which frequent it at different times of the year,” says Mr Winn-Darley. “Every species of UK raptor except golden eagle and sea eagle has been seen on Spaunton Moor.”

That is true for wild birds but a golden eagle could be spotted there – George looks after one for the local hunt. He is keen on falconry and one of his ambitions is to catch a fox with a golden eagle. Another is to work on a project to improve the prospects of the “red-listed” black grouse, but his real satisfaction comes from working with red grouse. “And the best bit of all is that all the birds are wild nothing is fed or artificially reared,” he says.

The judges

The competition judges are Geoff Garrod of the National Gamekeepers Organisation, Freddie de Lisle representing the CLA, Tessa Gates of FW and Tom Blades of BASC.

Game on

The competition winner will be announced in Farmers Weekly on 25 July, in tandem with the start of the three-day Game Fair at Blenheim in Oxfordshire. More details of the event are atwww.gamefair.co.uk

See the Game Fair 2008 special report page.