Grouseshooter James Mawle is one of the most passionate grouse conservationists in the UK. He takes Ben O’Rourke for a walk around his ground in Yorkshire to look for black grouse, which are lekking. Because of the 2020 coronavirus lockdown, there are hardly any cars and the birds are able to go back to their old lekking grounds, some of them in the middle of roads.
“Just enjoying the view,” James Mawle tells me as he looks out over his picturesque property in the Yorkshire Dales.
It’s a crisp, cloudless morning and we’re waiting for some birds.
James has been breeding black grouse and this year he’s celebrating his farm’s first lek, a turf war that decides which black cocks get the grey hens.
We arrived on the moor before sunrise and spent an hour stalking the birds before they finally decided to start lekking.
Three birds squared off in the middle of a road, which James says is a side effect of the coronavirus.
“They’re on the road because the road is so quiet because of coronavirus [lockdown]. It’s a really nice flat area for them to display on.”
In this area the black grouse benefit from effective predator control provided by the grouse moor keepers. This means the driver for success is getting the habitat right and making sure the chicks get enough quality insect food to get them to fledging. This can make the difference between each hen fledging two chicks or seven.
Unlike anti-grouse-shooting campaigners, when it comes to the hard graft of conservation, James is more action than talk. He is putting in the hours to improve the bird’s conservation status.
The grouse relocation programme is just part of a larger effort by James to rejuvenate the moors. This includes filling in grips which were created after the war in misguided government policy to create more land for farming.
“If the river up here is pushing the water off as quickly as possible, York floods.”
Filling in the grips slows down the flow of water, as does rewinding the river, which had been straightened.