SNOW has been missing from Grimwith Moor for the past five years but it is not just the weather that is changing on this North Yorks shoot which Graham Binns has keepered since 1984.
"Cold winters and good springs are what grouse need, not the mild wet winters we have had lately," says Graham (36). He has 1012ha (2500 acres) of grouse moor and 202ha (500 acres) of white land to look after.
It was something of a homecoming when he came to Grimwith Moor from his first job at Duncombe Park, Helmsley. His grandfather was keeper at Grimwith from 1959 to 1975. "I was brought up here and always helped the keeper," he recalls. "I went to grammar school and I could have done other things but I wanted to be a keeper."
"He has transformed the shoot in the past 10 years," says his employer, Andrew Hudson. "He has worked very hard on improvements over and above all the normal upland keepering tasks and has successfully changed the shoot from purely grouse moor to a top class mixed shoot by using the white ground below the heather line. This enabled us to take on a second keeper in 1998."
Introducing pheasant and partridge near to a moor prompts some controversy but Graham is confident it is the right thing to do for Grimwith. "It takes a lot of money to operate a grouse moor so if you have poor years you have to have something to keep you going. We put money from the shoot back into the estate and that is important now we have no income from farming," says Graham.
"Two farmers have just retired and we can now take the land their sheep grazed in hand and bring the heather back. We will keep it ungrazed for a couple of years then summer graze it. We might have to reseed the heather in some areas and that is very labour intensive.
"We had 1200 sheep on the moor when I first came and we are now down to 100. I have got 500 acres of heather back since I have been here," he adds. "The boss doesnt tell me to do anything, management is up to me and down to finance."
Grey and French partridge and pheasant have been introduced in the areas rising around the huge reservoir owned by Yorkshire Water that covers 162ha (400 acres) bordering the southern end of the shoot. A chill wind comes off the water but the ghylls, which have lately been planted with 4000 trees, offer shelter for the birds.
* Poults in June
Pheasant poults come in at five weeks old in June. "They are first hatch grass reared pheasants and we get them from places that are fairly high altitude and local so that they dont have to travel far. They are pretty wild and have adapted well to life here." This is despite the lack of cover crops and mature woodland. The partridge come in at 12 weeks and they too are thriving – particularly greys – and there is plenty of insect life for them. They are released in established coveys and held in two ghylls where the reservoir below and steep hills behind stop them from wandering off. "We manage to keep them out of the heather," says Graham who gets a 40% return on greys and 60% on reds.
The steepsided ghylls are hard on the legs but provide good sport. "We have great birds coming off here and guests, especially those coming from the south, are intrigued by the pheasant shooting we provide with no mature trees," says Graham. Around 30 days shooting/year is let, including 12-14 grouse days. Guests come from home and abroad for some varied sport. "We dont talk numbers regarding the bags here, we prefer to say have you enjoyed the day," says Andrew Hudson.
* Lowland trees
Over the past five years 50,000 trees have been planted on the estate in the lowland areas and more recently Graham has diverted the flow from a spring to bring water down to a flat spot that was formerly grazed bare, to create a boggy area. It has become a paradise for wading birds. Curlew, golden and green plover, redshank, oyster catcher, snipe and ring ousel are regular visitors along with geese, teal, mallard and widgeon. As the judges looked round a lapwing chick suddenly ran from underfoot, quickly followed by two more. "There will be four," said Graham, and as he spoke the fourth one appeared on cue. "We have more lapwings in this field than they have in the whole of Wales," he says.
He is also establishing light cover, including rowan and silver birch trees, to encourage and provide habitat for black grouse. A hen was seen recently, the first one for 20 years.
Up on the moor the judges were shown the grouse butts, well made with all the stonework done by Graham. In the heather the grouse were nesting and Graham led us to a beautifully camouflaged hen. "There could be 300 pairs on the moor this year. They seem to like to nest in the black (burnt) bits and lay between six and 12 eggs. I found this one when she had laid six, they will hatch on Saturday."
He loves the birds and while he cant regulate the weather, he takes good care of the habitat and vermin control to give them the best start in life he can.
"I have been round grouse all my life – there is something about them, something right – they should be treated with respect," he says.