The Prosperity UK conference over a week ago kicked off with a dinner at Hatfield House that brought together Leavers and Remainers in the spirit of making the best of what happens next. Lord Salisbury (L) couldn’t resist a crack about his ancestor doing to the Pope what Mrs May is doing to Mr Juncker — negotiating a new dispensation, shall we say. Lord Hill (R) mentioned that Martin Luther started the Reformation 500 years ago this year; for England, that all got muddled up with a royal divorce. The next day, Niall Ferguson (R turned L) compared Brexit to negotiating a divorce settlement with 27 ex-wives.
My godson came to lunch on his stag weekend after a night out in Newcastle. The done thing is to dress the groom in an embarrassing outfit, so he was kitted out in a Sunderland football shirt to ensure maximum abuse. At the greyhound track, a different stag party had gone one better: they had dressed the groom up as a Tory.
Otherwise, I spent the bank holiday weekend watching live sex and violence. That is to say, for two dawns and two dusks I was immersed in Britain’s greatest wildlife spectacle bar none: the ‘lek’ of the black grouse. Having set up two hides (blinds) the week before on a hillside in the north Pennines, my friends Reggie Heyworth and Tarquin Millington-Drake and I occupied them in twilight. The evening show was spectacular enough, with 40 large male birds strutting and swaggering all around us, their blue-black bodies set off with swollen vermillion eyebrows and bums like white chrysanthemums held erect between lyre-shaped, black tail feathers. All the while they emitted strange bubbling sounds interspersed with an unearthly sneeze-snort, which Tarquin, who took incomparable photos, likened to the opening of a fizzy can of lager.
But it’s all only a dress rehearsal for when the ‘greyhen’ females visit just before dawn. When the first mottled grey lady turned up at 4.40 a.m., the cocks jumped and fluttered in the hope of winning her favour; fights broke out all over. It’s winner take all: a tough-looking male with orange eyebrows and a territory at the very centre of the dance floor was an object of fascination for all the females. He secured four of the seven matings I witnessed. But he had to be quick: his neighbours jumped on him the moment he mounted the hen. Animals remind you that most intraspecies violence is ultimately about sex: human violence peaks among men of mating age.
There’s still no good explanation of why certain birds lek. It seems to be a case of runaway sexual selection. Once the females choose mates mainly on the basis of genes, rather than fathering skills or territory, they are effectively breeding males for their fancy outfits and skilful dances — the way we breed dogs. The female that does not play the game will fail to breed sons capable of winning genetic jackpots on the lek. But there is a paradox: in such winner-take-all mating systems, there should be less point in choosing the best genes, since the males will mostly have the same genes.
A century ago black grouse lived all over England but by the 1990s they were almost extinct except in a few Pennines dales. (They are less rare in Scotland.) Fortunately, thanks to the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and the efforts of grouse moor owners and gamekeepers, numbers in the north Pennines have more than doubled since 1998. On the hill where I was, there were five males nine years ago; now there are about 100. They thrive only if crows, foxes and stoats are controlled. The same is true of the curlews that serenaded us continually all weekend; lapwings, whose bumblebee-sized chicks were just hatched; golden plover, whose mottled eggs I found in a nest high on the hill, and snipe, red grouse, skylarks and short-eared owls. It is a scandal that this ornithological cornucopia — quite unlike the bird-bare hills of most of the Lake District and much of Wales — is under constant sniping from the likes of the BBC’s Chris Packham, and goes largely unrecognised by the green quangocracy that claims to run the country’s ecosystems. They dislike the fact that this success is a by-product of the shooting industry, achieved at private expense and not at the command of regulators.
Talking of communal displays, I was disappointed to miss the prorogation of parliament this year. I dashed off to catch a train before the red-robed Lords grandees doffed their bicorn hats and mumbled Norman French to bring
to an end what should surely be known as the short referendum parliament. Fortunately, I gather there was no sex or violence, and you don’t have to get up at 4 a.m. to watch the ceremony.