Irish lives: Guarding the red grouse on Boleybrack mountain

In 2007, just four pairs of the birds were left on the mountain, now 98 have been recorded

Gamekeeper John Carslake has been a full-time grouse- keeper since 2012 on Boleybrack mountain in Co Leitrim, far removed from the world British writer Nancy Mitford once portrayed as teeming with tweed-clad toffs "damning and blasting their way across the grouse moors".

Carslake doesn’t say much about his former job on a large, privately owned estate on the Scottish highlands, but he is keen to spread the message about his current work on Boleybrack, where a moratorium on shooting red grouse has been in operation for eight years and is set to continue until 2017.

Members of Glenfarne Gun Club have driven the successful campaign to protect the red grouse, a breed that had become so rare nationally that it is on BirdWatch Ireland's red list for conservation purposes.

“There was a real danger that they would die out,” says Eamonn Brennan, a technician with Sligo County Council and gun club secretary, who had grown up listening to the call of the grouse.

Another club member, carpenter Tony McMorrow, has childhood memories of working on the bog as a child and listening out for the bird’s distinctive call at dusk as it was a signal that it was time to go home.

Brennan, McMorrow and another club member, Brian McDermott, decided to act when a survey in 2007 confirmed there were only four pairs left on Boleybrack, a special area of conservation (SAC) known locally as John Frank’s mountain.

The crisis in red grouse numbers nationally has been attributed to overgrazing, too much afforestation, wildfires and a build-up of predators such as foxes.

The Heritage Council provided a grant for the Boleybrack project and a habit-management plan was prepared with the help of Lorcan O’Toole, better known for his work with the Golden Eagle Trust. Managing the heather, the bird’s main source of food and shelter, and predator control were the two key parts of the plan.

Ground-nesting birds

“Red grouse are ground-nesting birds – grey crows will take the eggs and chicks, and foxes will take adult birds as well,” Carslake says. He studied theology in college and has the red grouse’s call as the ring tone on his phone.

When challenged on the ethics of killing predators, he says “human intervention” has interfered with the natural cycle, as wolves are no longer around in Ireland to prey on foxes.

Employed in 2012 as a full- time grousekeeper, the only qualified one in Ireland, by the National Association of Regional Game Councils, he took up the mantle from the steering group founded five years earlier which managed to considerably boost numbers.

Last year 98 pairs were recorded on the mountain. While Carslake concedes there might be a slight dip in 2015, the Boleybrack project is regarded as such a success that it is now held as a best-practice model nationally.

Because red grouse use long heather as shelter but need new heather as a source of food, the habitat-management plan meant carefully controlled burning was permitted by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Controlled burning

“It was quite ground-breaking given that this is an SAC,” adds Carslake, who did a training course on controlled burning in Spain.

The gun club members are not the only locals who are enthusiastic about the project. Carslake says he has the full backing of all the farmers who have sheep grazing on the mountain.

“Because I am on the mountain full-time I can raise the alarm if a lamb is in trouble,” he points out.

He stresses that the measures taken to preserve the red grouse have helped other species such as the hen harrier, the meadow pipit and the skylark.

Today gamekeepers, gun club members and enthusiasts from around the country will attend a national red grouse conference at the Ballroom of Romance, Glenfarne, where they will get tips on predator control, habitat management and best practice before visiting the project site.

With numbers so high now, Brennan isn’t keen to see red grouse being shot once more there. “I would like to see us translocating them to other areas,” he says.

Carslake loves his place of work even when the rain is beating down on the mountain. “I say I’m often alone but never lonely. Not many people get to see hen harriers skydiving when they are at work.”