Waiting game for grouse shooting season

BORDERS gamekeepers are still playing the waiting game to find out whether grouse shooting will be frozen out of this summer's social calendar.

In the midst of the worst winter weather in almost 30 years, Berwickshire grouse literally flew-the-nest, leaving the snow-covered Lammermuirs in search of food.

Keepers saw a huge drop in bird numbers on their estates, and with weak-looking birds spotted as far from home as Coldingham beach and Kelso town centre, things were looking bleak.

The award-winning Kettleshiel estate near Duns was badly effected, with head keeper Paul Percival reporting a distinct lack of grouse on their moors.

But three months down the line the situation there is looking decidedly more cheery.

"Things are looking a hell of a lot better, we had no grouse at all in January but a lot have come back," Mr Percival said.

"We still have less than we had, all together we have probably lost about a third. At one point it was looking like it was going to be the other way around, and we were only going to get a third back," Mr Percival added, admitting that the situation had looked bleak, even after the snow eventually melted.

"It was getting into the middle of February, there was a lot of heather showing but still no grouse."

But although many birds have returned to Kettleshiel, it is still uncertain whether any shooting will take place.

"We might get a shoot day, it depends," said Mr Percival.

"We don't know the condition of the birds, whether they'll be up to cultivating their eggs. Some of the grouse are sitting on eggs at the moment, but it's a bit of wait and see," he explained.

"We don't really like to traipse about on all the heather at this time of year. It's normally just about July time when we do some counts so we'll see then."

Keepers were particularly alarmed at the beginning of the year when hundreds of grouse left estates, not least because it was such an unusual situation, which meant no one knew for sure whether any would return.

Scotland feared for its 30 million-a-year shooting season, while rural communities locally were bracing themselves for the knock-on-effects of shoots not taking place.

Mr Percival explained why it was difficult to make predictions based on past experience: "It's the first time for me, I've never seen anything like this happen before" he said.

"Some of the older chaps remember something similar but you've got to go back about 40 years so it's really not happened for a generation."

He added: "We still don't know if any shooting will take place, but it's definitely looking a lot better."

Edward Johnson, assistant factor at the neighbouring Roxburghe Estate, is also playing the waiting game, as Roxburghe's Byrecleugh and Rawburn moors were also deserted at the beginning of the year.

"Yes the grouse have returned but certainly not in the same number that departed," he said.

"There may be some shooting but it may be very limited compared to last year."

Warning that there more problems may yet arise, Mr Johnson explained: "We don't know what condition the grouse are in. They have had a hard winter and the nesting season requires a lot of energy. The mothers might not have the energy to nurture their young, the test will be when they hatch."

And although hopeful for some grouse shooting at Roxburghe this year, Mr Johnson said that he wouldn't like to bet on how much.

"It will depend on the young birds, how many survive, then we'll know what surplus we have for shooting," he explained.

"We're certainly not rushing to let days yet, but hopefully we'll be pleasantly surprised.

"We're not being too pessimistic, we're just being cautious. But we have got a stock to work with which is the most important thing."

Chairman of the Scottish Gamekeeper Association, Alex Hogg, said that the full effects of the hard winter's months still remain to be seen.

"The reports from grouse keepers in the Borders who have just completed their spring counts is that grouse numbers are well down on last year," he said.

"However it's still early days and everything will depend on their breeding success in the next few months. Keepers will be keeping vermin numbers down to give the grouse the best chance of rearing the maximum number of chicks but the weather plays an enormous role. If the birds get the right conditions the worst predictions of early January will be allayed."