Glorious Twelfth: Ian Botham, Chris Packham and the fight for North Yorkshire’s moors

Anthony Dowson  28, Moorland Beat Keeper for the Thimbleby estate, near Northallerton, is pictured counting grouse on the moor with his dog Millie.
Picture: James Hardisty.
Anthony Dowson 28, Moorland Beat Keeper for the Thimbleby estate, near Northallerton, is pictured counting grouse on the moor with his dog Millie. Picture: James Hardisty.

It keeps thousands of people in jobs, ensures Yorkshire’s moorland stays diverse with wildlife and contributes more than £2bn to the national economy.

But as gamekeepers across the region mark the Glorious 12th and the start of the grouse season today, a new group set up to fight for the survival of shooting on the moors of North Yorkshire has urged people to recognise the multitude of benefits it brings.

Gun dog handler Fiona Kirk with her English Setter, Zeus and Anthony Dowson  28, Moorland Beat Keeper for the Thimbleby estate, stalking game on the moor.

Gun dog handler Fiona Kirk with her English Setter, Zeus and Anthony Dowson 28, Moorland Beat Keeper for the Thimbleby estate, stalking game on the moor.

The North Yorkshire Moors Moorland Organisation (NYMMO) brings together keepers from 12 North Yorkshire estates, including Danby, Rosedale and Westerdale, Sleights and Goathland and Thimbleby, who felt their livelihoods - and way of life - were being threatened, both by misinformation and the possibility of a ban in future.

They are now working to promote the benefits that managed moorlands bring, not only to the moors and wildlife, but also to communities and the rural economy that is helped by the shooting parties. It is a picture replicated across the country, from Scotland to the Peak District.

NYMMO coordinator Tina Brough said: “There seems to be more and more bad publicity about shooting, and following the hunting ban, people were thinking ‘will we be next?’. We want to promote the good side of moorland management before it gets to that point.”

Shooting, and preparing for a shoot, is just a small proportion of a keeper’s role. Trapping predators such as stoats and foxes allows ground nesting birds such are the red-status lapwing, curlew and merlin, to thrive, and the NYMMO plans to survey wildlife on the moors in an attempt to show that once-threatened species are benefitting from moorland management.

Anthony Dowson  28, Moorland Beat Keeper for the Thimbleby estate, near Northallerton.
Picture: James Hardisty.

Anthony Dowson 28, Moorland Beat Keeper for the Thimbleby estate, near Northallerton. Picture: James Hardisty.

“People have the misconception that we kill everything just to keep grouse but that’s not true,” Miss Brough said. “If game keepers weren’t there the moors would not be sustainable.”

At Thimbleby Estate, near Northallerton, heather burning is key to moorland management.

In May, 200 acres of heather moorland in the Peak District were destroyed after an accidental fire spread. Moorland management, which includes creating firebreaks, was not in use.

Thimbleby head keeper David Dickinson said: “If we didn’t burn, a summer fire would run for miles and miles. It would be a disaster. People seem to think moorland management is all about wealthy people shooting, but it’s so much more than that.

Grouse on moorland.

Grouse on moorland.

“It’s about creating a healthy moor that can be the best it can be - and also an environment where a wide range of people can get enjoyment from it. On shoot days we have ladies beating, students helping us when they’re off college - it’s a big part of the community.”

Meanwhile, a row between Sir Ian Botham and Chris Packham over whether grouse shooting should be banned saw the former England cricketer label the BBC wildlife presenter an “extremist”.

More than 80,000 people have signed a petition calling for shooting to be outlawed.

Sir Ian, wholives in North Yorkshire, is a supporter of the shoot while Mr Packham has backed the petition, and the pair engaged in an angry clash over the issue on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Mr Packham said the shoots damage bird of prey populations while Sir Ian suggested the presenter should not be allowed to publicly take sides because of his status as a BBC employee.

At the same time, a report by government conservation agency Natural England has concluded that England’s uplands could support more than 200 breeding pairs of hen harriers, but the bird of prey’s numbers are being kept down by illegal persecution.

The RSPB recently pulled out of the Government’s hen harrier action plan because it felt the plan was not delivering the “urgent action and change in behaviour” needed to bring the bird of prey back from the brink of extinction in England.

The wildlife charity also raised concerns about the “environmental damage” caused by practices it says are used by grouse moor managers, such as draining and burning habitat and killing mountain hares to reduce disease in grouse.

It has called for the licensing of the industry, which it argues would drive up standards and ensure grouse moors complied with the law or risk losing their right to hold shoots.

The renewed debate comes as early hopes for a relatively good grouse shooting season, with better chick survival than the “calamitous conditions” last year, were undermined by adverse late weather during the nesting period.

The Moorland Association, whose members own and manage 860,000 acres of heather moorland in England and Wales for red grouse, said there could be pockets of poor grouse numbers on some moors and shoot days being cancelled.

But chairman Robert Benson said that there were still “positive outcomes” on land managed for grouse shooting, with 18,000 acres of peatland habitat restored across northern England.