It’s a sad day when one has nothing but memories of great days long ago on our moors on the Glorious Twelfth.
Those were the days when the moors were alive with all sorts of wildlife including red grouse.
The vast majority of the men who gathered to celebrate the Twelfth weren’t thinking about the size of the bags that day. No, they were thinking more about seeing their magnificent dogs work the hills, be they setters, pointers or retrievers.
I missed an age when 10 good men with their dogs could easily have been counting bags of 100 birds or more in the evening if they wanted to on any one of a dozen moors in Northern Ireland. But very few of them wanted to.
I first began to take a great interest in our moors about 65 years ago and I can say there is nothing better for man or beast than a good walk over the high ground where the air is everything you would want it to be.
I have not been talking to too many moor owners but those I have spoken to say it will be another blank Twelfth for them. Why should that be so?
I think that on a lot of moors the heather is not as good or as plentiful as it was. Then there is the matter of raptors and predators, many of which did not exist on our moors 60 or more years ago.
I spend a lot of time now at my turf banks beside Loughareema. between Ballycastle and Cushendun. I have for company a Peregrine Falcon, possibly from the nesting sites near Torr.
On Saturday she was pursuing a racing pigeon high up in the sky and, in what was a level flight, the pigeon was staying well in front as they disappeared out of sight.
On Monday of this week the Peregrine was back again and this time it might have been for a duckling. The previous day I saw a Mallard and eight young swimming in Loughareema. The Peregrine was screaming like something demented, possibly in an attempt to flush the duckling into flight to where she could easily take them. I have not seen duck or ducklings for the past four days.
Here is an insight into what the moors in North Antrim would have been like even 60 odd years ago. Myself and two other lads were driving over Orra mountain after a sports fixture in Dunloy.
Up along James Hamilton Stubber’s moor three lads jumped out of the car in front of us and climbed the fence on to the moor. We had not long to wait to see what they were after. A cock and hen grouse and seven young rose only yards from them. The first two shots put down the cock and hen. Then, as the young birds saw their parents crash into the heather they too, alighted. A few steps more from the gunmen and down came three of the young grouse.
Then the remaining four grouse alighted where they saw their siblings fall. Four more shots and all the grouse had been accounted for.
In reply to my request for opinions on why our grouse now are either very scarce or nonexistent, a Belfast reader, blames the demise of the grouse on afforestation which provided safe cover for foxes, hoodie crows and other raptors and predators. He says new blood must be imported and released and he recalls the work done by Forestry wildlife officer Fred Quinn who, he says hand reared grouse for the Department of Agriculture.
Some idea of the extent of the predator problem can be gauged from the recent experience of my son Daniel and three of his friends, Torr farmer Paddy McQuaid and his son Seamus and Watertop farmer Paddy McNeill.
Dan had set off on a Friday evening around seven o’clock to exercise his six young hounds which will be one year old this week. He had brought them up in his van to Loughareema road with the intention of walking them on the White road which separates Cushleake mountain from the Lough mountain.
All was going well until Dan decided to skirt the Knackery, a small stand of trees, so-called because of the remains of lambs killed there by foxes at lambing time.
He took a short-cut through a field of rushes and that is where it all went wrong. The earth trembled with the music of the puppies and two adult hounds as they took off after a fox.
To cut a long story short, it soon became clear that six different foxes were being hunted.
Over the course of two hours Dan walked a lot more miles than he intended until, with the help of Paddy and his son Seamus six hounds were found, still marking foxes in a ravine on the Torr side of the Green Hill, four miles from where they got out of the van.
One of the puppies had pursued his fox along a narrow ledge on a cliff face and was not wanting to leave it. Dan said: “It was black dark and I would never have attempted to go in for him without the help of Paddy and Seamus. It is a place where Paddy had bolted many foxes with his terriers and he knows it like the back of his hand.’’
That was all but one hound accounted for. But where was the missing puppy? Before Dan had taken the van away from where it all had started at the big rock at Loughareema road, he had left an old coat beside the rock.
The first shafts of daylight were beginning to show in the sky, about eight hours after the first fox was started, before Dan got the seven hounds into the van and could go back to the big rock at Loughareema road. The ‘lost’ puppy had been hunting for much of that time and the danger was that he had gone into Ballypatrick Forest and could not find his way out.
I checked with Paddy Mc Neill but, in spite of a search there was neither sight nor sound of him. But when Dan reached the big rock, there was the puppy, asleep on the old coat.
How he had managed, all alone, to work his way back to where he had got out of the van, is something of a mystery. One would expect an old dog to do it but not a puppy on his first fox hunt.
Breeding counts for a lot. For the record, the puppy’s name is Captain and he and his siblings are the offspring of Rocket, the bitch I wrote about in the winter after she hunted a fox for 23.9 miles through Ballypatrick Forest, away to Glenshesk and back to the Green Hill for it to be accounted for at the Tops above Cushendun. The pups’ father is reputed to be the best hound in the North of England.