Our moors are all the poorer for the absence of the grouse

For anybody who rambles the heather covered hills there's a moment of great enjoyment if they hear a cock grouse crowing nowadays. There’s an added moment of ecstasy if by chance they catch a glimpse of these lovely birds skimming the turf banks.

The grouse is not alone an endangered species in this country now, it is in fact almost extinct, at least in many places in this region. And our moors are all the poorer for the absence of this great gamebird.
Traditionally, August 12 was the opening day of the grouse shooting season but many years ago way back in the 1960's, in the hope that young birds would be stronger on the wing it was put back to September 1. That was the time when the Department of Justice issued your shotgun licence along with the listing of the dates of the closed season, a practice that should never have been suspended for it ensured no excuse was acceptable for shooting birds when the season was closed.

A fine plump bird, the size between a bantam and a farmyard hen, the grouse has dark chestnut speckled feathered, black barred, with a deep red wattle over the eye. Pushed to take flight a pack of a half dozen or so will lift, discharging wild excitement with the old cock alarmingly crowing bec, bec, go bec, go bec, bec, bec, bec. This explosion is mixed with a dynamic sound of enchanting feather music.

Like many other sportsmen I too cherish some wonderful memories of years long ago when we traipsed miles and miles of heathery moors in long August and September days.

My friend, Tim Daly of Ardnacrusha, hail and hearty in his mid-eighties holds the record for a grouse shoot on the Windy Gap/ Woodcock Hill range. Sadly there are now no birds on this mountain, once the August 12 destination for most Limerick sportsmen. That time they travelled at dawn by bicycle with setter close to the wheel. On my last visit to Gallows Hill there wasn’t a sign of a grouse on the moor.
A man with an exceptional knowledge of grouse, its future and indeed with all the causes of its decline was the late John Nash of Oola, with whom I often discussed the problem when we met at gundog trials before his tragic death in 1990.

John was a doyen of the gundog world and his pre-fix Moanruadh, which he told me was taken from " a bit of red bog" near Palasgreen was world famous. Moanruadh setters and pointers and Springer spaniels too, commanded an international reputation and John, himself was a respected field trial judge of international status. In his youth as a footballer he was one of the greats to wear the Limerick jersey.
In Derry, Argue’s wonderful book, Setters and Pointers, he says it would be difficult to write about the Irish setter without mentioning John Nash. He first met John in 1962 and spent many summers with him training dogs on the Irish mountains.

Confessing that he learned a lot from John and “possibly as much from Dinny Fitzgerald, very much the unsung hero, who took on any dog John had problems with but who never received due credit as far as I’m aware.” Argue, recalled that he and Dinny “would sit on some high point with half a dozen setters while John, gave a prospect a turn.

“All the while, Dinny, would give me a running commentary on what John was doing, what the dog was thinking and what would happen next. Geneally he was right,” Argue, recalls with great admiration.
With the author I’ll wholeheartedly agree. Dinny, who also lived in Oola, had a natural talent, bordering on the uncanny on all matters canine. He was a kind and wonderful person and truly an expert on the field trail scene.

There are a number of reasons for the drastic decline in grouse numbers. Even in Scotland, where the moors are meticulously managed and tourism shooting revenue is estimated at several hundred million sterling, grouse populations seem to dip for some unaccountable reasons some years.

Here there was never any serious heather management programme and grouse require healthy young heather shoots on which to feed along with a supply of grit to help digestion. There was a small redundant slate quarry on a very small moor not far from where I once lived and a pack of grouse visited it every evening for ruffling their feathers.

From my own observations at least three of the seven moors with which I was very familiar over the years suffered extremely from over shooting. It must be remembered that when myxomatosis wiped out our rabbits in he mid 1950s, some sportsmen turned to grouse for their sport.

Once, too, urban sportsmen enjoyed only a day or two on the mountain during a season but from the 1960s many acquired cars and the 10 or 12 miles that previously had to be made on the bike just became a regular evening visit taking about 15 or 20 minutes. This continued until whatever grouse were on the mountain were wiped out.

You wouldn’t need to be an Einstein to understand the devastating effects of this outrageous situation.

Courtesy of Tom Browne and the Limerick Leader
August 2005