An early adopter of Countryside Stewardship, Neville Gill cares for one of the last strongholds of black grouse on his family’s North Pennines moor

Neville Gill among the trees he hand-planted for black grouse.

As we came over the brow of the hill, a covey of ten black grouse got up perfectly on cue, and within a couple of hours we saw 18 blackcock and three grey hens. “I didn’t want to guarantee it, so that was very pleasing,” said Neville Gill, owner and manager of 1,000-acre Williamston Estate in Northumberland. Once widespread in England, black grouse could be found on lowland heath as far south as Hampshire, but in 1998 there were only 773 displaying males left. These days they are confined to the uplands, where 96% of the remaining English population live on the edges of moors keepered for red grouse. So why has this red-listed species held on at Williamston?

Farm facts

  • Location: Northumberland
  • Type of farming: Sheep
  • Acreage: 1,050 (750 moor, 200 rough pasture, 50 grazing and 50 woodland)
  • Area in conservation measures: 100%
  • Funding grants: Higher Tier

Black grouse are associated with the moorland fringe, but they also eat the heather, grasses and berries that make up the habitat maintained for red grouse. Williamston has been in Neville’s family for 300 years, and records of its 750 acres of moor being managed for grouse date back to the 1850s. Since then, there have been many changes in uplands policy. After the war, the family’s interest in grouse shooting meant it resisted incentives to cover the hill in conifer plantations. In the late 1940s, pressure to increase livestock production meant damaging drainage ‘grips’ were dug, but over the past 15 years, 13.6km of ditches on the estate have been filled. The majority of these have been blocked under an agri-environment scheme, rewetting the blanket bog to benefit sphagnum moss and other peat-forming plants.

Similarly, Neville reduced the number of sheep from 500 to 230 and keeps them off the hill in winter to allow the moor to recover from over-grazing as part of his Countryside Stewardship agreement. Grazing restrictions allow vegetation to grow, providing more refuge from predators, a wider range of plants for adult black grouse to eat, and more insects to feed their chicks. It has also meant less disturbance for lapwing on in-bye land in the valley bottom. He said: “Before we took the farming in hand and halved the sheep we never saw a lapwing, but last year we had several successful nests.” The grazing is let to a neighbour and the sheep still play an important part in preventing the moor turning to scrub.

Shorter mesh tubes are more likely to withstand winds on the hill.

As well as the move to light-touch agriculture, for the past 30 years, Neville has controlled large areas of encroaching bracken with the herbicide Asulox before fencing off and sowing sections with heather seed. In addition, he has cut patches of tall, rank heather, which dominates other plants, and on the slopes, where machinery can’t be used, burning is an essential tool. The benefits of burning are quickly revealed, with heather and bilberry showing signs of regrowth by July the same year.

Most of the burning takes place on areas of dry heathland with a small amount on blanket bog. Natural England (NE) recently restricted burning on blanket bog because it might damage peat-forming plants, but Neville currently has an exemption for restoration purposes. At Williamston, the blanket bog on the flat plateau is rich in flora, with 11 species including Cladonia lichens, cloudberry, cranberry, crowberry, cotton grasses and sphagnum. However, some of the bog further down is dominated by heather, so as part of an approved programme, controlled burning is being used to remove the dense cover before reintroducing peat-forming sphagnum and cotton grass. Heather burning can only take place between October and April and consumes the canopy, leaving the peat untouched.

Neville said: “Finding a window for burning is much harder than people may think, especially in this part of the world. Last year, we couldn’t do any at all because it was too wet, but it’s different for each moor.” These so-called ‘cool burns’ also reduce wildfire risk by creating firebreaks and reducing the ‘fuel load’ of combustible material on the moor. Recent dry summers have increased the likelihood of wildfires, which can destroy the peat. Neville said: “We were terrified last year. We have a head of heather that sticks out into the valley. If we had a wildfire, it would travel for miles over the next door moor.”

After a controlled ‘cool burn’ in winter on a small area of shallow peat, heather and bilberry show signs of regrowth by July the same year.

Williamston is designated an SSSI, Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protection Area (SPA), and Neville’s restoration work has seen the moor’s status move from ‘unfavourable/no change’ in 2000 to ‘unfavourable/recovering’ today. Black grouse are among a range of threatened birds to benefit, including waders such as curlew, lapwing and golden plover, and raptors such as short-eared owl, merlin and hobby.

Neville said: “We see many birds of prey on the moor and would never tolerate the killing of any protected species.” Legal predation management, carried out by part-time keeper and farm manager Ben Staley, is essential for the survival of both adult and fledging black grouse. Breeding success depends on the fact that Williamston is surrounded by much larger grouse moors such as Whitfield and Knarsdale, with fox control coordinated across boundaries. Female black grouse can travel large distances and their survival depends on the right conditions being present on a landscape scale. Time invested in fox, corvid and grey squirrel control, which is paid for by the shoot, also helps to protect other ground-nesting birds and a growing red squirrel population, several of which are daily visitors to the Gills’ garden feeders.

A vital ingredient of successful black grouse conservation has been the implementation of agri-environment options. Having been an early adopter of the original Countryside Stewardship in 1992, Neville has extensive experience of such agreements and has become an expert in making them workable. “We have a good relationship with Natural England and my long-standing advisor Claire Furness is key, but NE often use me as a guinea pig, so are used to me giving constructive criticism.” His recent application for the five-year Higher Tier scheme took a year to complete, was 200 pages long and included a 30-year long-term plan for the moor. He said: “It goes through field by field and it’s all important stuff, but to some farmers it may well be daunting.”

Another concern is lack of flexibility and broad-brush prescriptions, which in some cases don’t cater for the reality on the ground. A good example is the copse planted for black grouse last year. According to the rulebook, the tree guards had to be 1.5m solid tubes. These are fine for lowland plantations, but on the hill they get blown over, so Neville argued for 1.2m mesh tubes, which allow the wind to pass through. However, he believes the most serious impediment to uptake of the schemes is lateness of payment. A year into the agreement the estate still hasn’t received a penny, despite having carried out the work.

He said: “Bureaucracy is holding up the system and a lot of land managers are suffering. Cash flow is vital; if you suddenly turn off a revenue stream you will cripple the whole enterprise.”

Although the process of applying for the new Higher Tier agreement is complex and its practical application often challenging, Neville would still encourage other land managers to apply for it. The scheme will help ensure the long-term ecological health of the estate and ensures it can continue as a going concern. This is particularly important on remote upland farms like Williamston, where agri-environment schemes make up a large proportion of the revenue. In total, agri- environment schemes and Basic Payments comprise 36% of income, with another 41% coming from holiday lets. Shooting brings in 23%, but only breaks even.

Neville is keen to stress the interdependence of all these elements, which are essential for successful conservation. He said: “Historically Williamston sustained four farmsteads; now it is farmed by one person, part time for wildlife. The farming and shooting employ the farm manager/gamekeeper, who creates the right habitat, which in turn attracts tourists to the accommodation. Take one away and the rest will struggle. Were grouse shooting to become legislated out of existence, we’d be forced to graze all year round. The black grouse and all the other birds would sadly disappear.”

Conservation in numbers

  • 2,000 trees planted by hand for black grouse in 2019
  • 10,000 trees planted since 1999
  • 13.6km of grips now blocked
  • 230 sheep grazing in summer down from 500

This model delivers a range of additional public goods, including carbon capture through peat management, reducing wildfire and flood risk, and maintaining heritage farm buildings and stone walls.

Neville’s great grandfather (seated centre) after a day’s shooting on Williamston.

Looking to the future, Neville hopes the three hectares of moor on which he recently planted a mix of 1,500 birch, hawthorn, rowan, willow and alder will provide winter food and cover for black grouse. The plantation is tucked under the hill next to a burn for protection, and he planted all of the trees by hand. He said: “We were applying for the new agreement and I said to NE why don’t we do something for black game? So I came up with a planting plan that was quite natural, following the curves of the hill and not too densely packed to create the kind of scrubby woodland they love.”

Neville’s passion for conservation in general and black grouse in particular is clear, and his strong sense of stewardship and willingness to go the extra mile underlies his success. He said: “As far as I’m concerned I’m just the temporary custodian of this place. For 300 years every generation’s done their bit and my aim is to pass it on in better shape than I found it.”

This case study is taken from our book Moorland Conservationists, available here for just £3.99.

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