Durham dales

Three weeks ago (how time flies) I spent two sunny days in the area of Weardale, Upper Teesdale and surroundings.  It was a warm couple of days to be up in the hills.

I was there at the invitation of Caroline Beck, a journalist who formerly worked for the BBC in the north of England but also on Today, who is producing a series of podcasts on different perspectives on her local environment.  I was talking about grouse shooting. Part of the visit was spent on the moors describing the ills of intensive grouse shooting, and part of it in the house of a grouse shooting supporter having a bit of a chat.  When the podcast emerges I will indicate on this blog.

Here are a few slightly random thoughts and observations from my visit.

In the Yorkshire Dales, north of Grassington, I saw a Red Kite flying up a dale.  I got the impression that it was just passing through rather than resident as it seemed to have stirred up all the local corvids to take to the air. What price a few pairs settling in this National Park? Slim at the moment, I gather.

I drove on, heading north, and travelled up to the inn at Tan Hill, where on a sunny day the view is spectacular. I’ve been that way many times and the road north to Tan Hill from Keld always seems to be one of those sheep-wrecked parts of the world about which George Monbiot writes in Feral.

I stopped for a little chat with some sheep to ask them what they thought about the future of National Parks and AONBs but they weren’t very forthcoming. Had I but known, I could have asked them whether they had any information to share on the disappearance of the Hen Harrier named Mabel whose last satellite-tag transmission was on the left of the road along which I was driving and about a week earlier. But I didn’t know that at the time as the news emerged another ten days later.

My aim had been to turn west at Tan Hill but the road was closed so I had to turn east towards Barnard Castle – a route with which I am more familiar.  Down this route I saw the only example of heather burning that I encountered on this trip (it was windy on this day).

I’ll come back to heather burning in a blog post tomorrow.

Further north I travelled up Teesdale and to Langdon Beck where the usual group of Blackcock were gathered in a field – 24 of them. This was where I once saw a Red Kite with my RSPB team and a well-known local gamekeeper something like 20 years ago.  The Blackcock are still there but the Red Kites strangely have not become established. But then there was a strange lack of birds of prey in these upland areas.

As I got over to St John’s Chapel there was much business over tup sales.  It was as though every Landrover for miles had gathered with their Ifor Williams trailers behind. 

Later that evening in a pub I overheard the locals saying that they would soon see a pulse of Scottish £20 notes in circulation as the sheep money spread through the shops, garages and pubs of these dales. And then the conversation turned to the fact that the sheep sales’ Scottish twenties would be followed by the red fifties coming into circulation as grouse shooting came to an end and gamekeepers were thanked with envelopes stuffed full of large denomination notes. All declared to HMRC I’m sure.

A local moor, Bollihope, is owned by the Crown Prince of Dubai and he spends a few weeks in the area, in the ‘big house’ with a large entourage of guests and colourful hangers on each year. If the shooting isn’t much good, or the weather is inclement, he is said to jump into a helicopter and head for the races at Newcastle (with which shooting days, so the talk in the pub went, are often synchronised).

There were other tales of the local moor owners.  I wasn’t that far from Allenhead where the owner’s guests need to see a Magritte on the wall to feel comfortable, remember. Apparently, again only according to local chat, shooting guests can also look down at a stuffed 10-foot long alligator under a glass panel on the floor of their accommodation.

This is another world, where the ultra-rich shoot birds for fun on moors cleared of their native predators and the locals are forced to appear grateful for the larger denomination notes that trickle down to their lives.  The conversations I overheard, and a few that I started in local shops, painted a picture of resentful dependence of the locals on grouse shooting. They welcomed the money, were accustomed to and somewhat proud of the seasonal tasks of beating and picking up, but were largely contemptuous of the rich who set the scene in these parts. It was a somewhat feudal rural scene where the serfs poked fun at their lords in the safety of their pubs and cafes.



3 Replies to “Durham dales”

  1. I spent a few days in Upper Teesdale on a botanical and bird watching trip with my partner and the Reading Natural History Society in the spring of this year. We had very good weather and the views were spectacular. We saw plenty of red grouse. However like you Mark I saw virtually no raptors at all just a single kestrel in the far distance on one day. I think your report Mark sums up exactly my views of the area. I came away with a very distinct, rather forbidding feeling, that there is something definitely not right and not natural with those dales and that one was looking at a rather ghostly landscape.

  2. I’m not fussed about Magritte – I recommend staying at Langdon Beck youth hostel or the nearby pub. Not far from the birds. GWCT run occasional tours there with Natural England – a good chance to discuss shooting and all it entails.

    Raptors including short-eared owls don’t last long up there I feel…but it’s well worth visiting to think about everything Mark has described here.

    Console yourself with Teesdale gentians (they don’t get persecuted) near Cauldron Snout. Consider how land management has changed since Hannah Hauxwell farmed nearby.

  3. Monoculture of nothing the only way I describe my counties uplands of Durham, I know them well but rarely visit for my love of birding huge biodiversity decline due to grouse shooting.

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