Boxing day was mild and dry, if somewhat overcast. Along with many others, I headed out for Ilkley Moor to walk off the excesses of Christmas Day. Passing White Wells, I followed the path that leads to the Valley of the Rocks, before diverting and, with a little effort, making my way up the steep and uneven steps to the ridge-line. The panoramic views from here are spectacular: to the north-west, out beyond Beamsley Beacon, to the east, Almscliffe Crag.

As I walked, every so often, I could hear the familiar throaty ‘clucking’ of a red grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotia) hiding in the heather. Occasionally one would show itself – flying low over the terrain, with fast wing-beats, to find a new resting place. This iconic bird, present in numbers on Ilkley Moor, is only found in the British Isles. It is a subspecies of the willow grouse of Scandinavia, Russia, and the Baltics. In the UK, their habitat is predominantly the heather moorlands of the north, with heather being their main food source and also providing cover for this ground nesting bird.

In many places heather moorland is managed to support driven grouse shooting (this involves people, ‘beaters’, driving the grouse towards shooting ‘butts’). Until recently (for the 10 years prior to April, 2018, and for many years prior to 1997) this was the case for Ilkley Moor – and grouse shooting continues on adjacent Rombalds moors. Management methods generally used for grouse moors include controlled burns to encourage a range of different lengths of heather – shorter, younger heather for the birds to feed on, and longer, older heather in which the birds can shelter and nest; and control of the numbers of predators.

However, managed grouse shooting is a subject that evokes strong feelings. Advocates say that wider benefits ensue: that heather moorland is protected in a cost-effective manner; that the resulting environment is good for other ground nesting birds; and that it provides an important source of revenue for rural areas. Aside from the shooting of birds in large numbers – those against say that associated practices have a detrimental effect on the balance of wildlife; and result in degradation of peatland making it less capable of carbon sequestration (a particularly valuable feature of this type of environment) and regulation of the flow of water from the uplands, and also adversely affecting water quality. For the most part, arguments advanced on both sides are contested.

So, it would seem that Ilkley Moor has the potential to be an interesting case study that could provide insight with regard to at least some of these difficult issues. Will recent changes in management strategy – and differences from adjacent ‘grouse shoot moors’ - be reflected in environment and wildlife? Drawing conclusions would be complicated - there are many other variables, and Ilkley moor is something of an enclave in this regard - but it would be fascinating if useful data could be gathered. In any event, let’s hope that red grouse remain a common sight during that ‘traditional’ Boxing Day walk on the moor.

Steve Westerman