PBAFHE Two Black grouse (Tetrao tetrix) males fighting at lek, Deeside, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland, UK, May.
Country Notes

A countryside for all

Patrick Galbraith wants shooters and mushroom heads to get along

It was one of those dinner parties that didn’t feel like it was going particularly well. Someone had just broken up with their girlfriend for want of someone else; my little puppy wouldn’t stop howling in the hall, and one of our guests was strung out after a hard week. They’d been taking lots of psychedelics in the hope that it was going to cure a long-standing malady but it sounded as though the cumulative microdosing had brought on a pretty macro state of worry.

I poured more wine and tried to bring the whole thing down a bit by mentioning a book I’m working on about land access and the complicated fight for the countryside. “I think we sometimes forget,” I said vaguely, “about working people in rural Britain.” I’d hoped the sentiment would be a hit with various guests but regrettably it didn’t have the desired effect at all. A musician sitting at the table looked at me as if I’d just peed on his shoes and his girlfriend launched into a long gambit about false tradition and the extraction of labour. I poured more wine and looked over the bannister at the dog. She’d stopped howling and was asleep on her back.

Having declined by some 90 per cent, black grouse are now thought of as being a rare wonder of the uplands

The following Wednesday I met a man in a Teesdale car park just as dawn was breaking. Will Morris has been headkeeper on the Barningham Estate for some years and it became clear very soon after jumping into his truck that he’s one of those men who has fallen deeply in love with the landscape they’re charged with looking after. With all the stopping, it took us a while to get up to the black grouse lek out on the moor; Will wanted to show me the many grey partridge pairs and his lapwings. The redshank, he told me twice (like a little boy with a cherished train set), are his favourite birds.

We could hear the black grouse before we got to the lek, voices bubbling up in the cool breeze, rising occasionally to a scratchy hiss, cocks facing off. Black grouse were once found in every English county and archaeologists sometimes unearth their bones from middens beneath Hadrian’s Wall. They were so plentiful that they kept Roman legionaries well fed, but an abundance of predators and a loss of habitat over the past century has been disastrous. Having declined by some 90 per cent, black grouse are now thought of as being a rare wonder of the uplands.

We turned right on a track by a well-maintained stone dyke and the lek was spread out on the ground in front of us, the cocks with their proud white carnations tail feathers, and the hens slipping quietly through the reeds. It’s an odd thing that if you get out on foot, the grouse will flee but when you’re crawling across the land in a truck, they know you mean no harm.

Will’s birds had a difficult time during lockdown. He was pleased, in a way, he told me as we sat there drinking tea, to have locals enjoying the land. It was a pretty bleak time, he admits, and he’s well aware that there is great happiness and tranquillity to be found in wild places but his lek is no longer what it was. There is a footpath that runs right by it and the birds get particularly upset when people tear by them on electric bikes. It’s hard to put a number on it but what was once a thriving little population, is now fragmented and much reduced.

A couple of weeks later I sat in the sun, much further south, with a keeper who has similar issues with dog walkers and cyclists. His charges are wild grey partridges rather than black grouse. The thing is, he explained to me, as we looked out over the land he manages, is that educated people and policymakers don’t tend to listen to the likes of him. “I’ve not got any letters after my name,” he shrugged, “but I’m out here every day of my life. Surely I know what I’m talking about? You’d hope so anyway.”

There is nothing simple in any of this and nobody should pretend otherwise. Perhaps there is room for everyone out there in the countryside, the swimmers and the goose shooters and the magic mushroom pickers. But the difficulty is that to come up with a workable system, we’d actually have to listen to everybody too.

This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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