A 20-Year Love Affair with Black Grouse
I once wrote in a job application that ‘my love affair’ with black grouse started when I was studying in Wales. Despite it’s glibness, my statement wasn’t far from the truth. When tasked to write a nature conservation literature review, I remember browsing the university library for inspiration. It was in the forestry section that I happened to come across a publication focussed on habitat management for black grouse. I’ve always had a passion for avian natural history, so naturally I quickly leafed through the pages of the publication for its relevance to the task. It was whilst reading the publication that I came to realise these birds were something special among the UK’s avian community; not only do they have a striking appearance but they are only one of a few species where the males competitively display for female mating rights - a behaviour known as 'lekking'.
Nearly 20 years later, I have to say that I still genuinely believe black grouse are one of the UK’s most amazing native birds. This short film of lekking black grouse in the Cairngorm National Park by Andy Howard Nature Photography shows just quite how amazing these birds really are...
It was in 2015, whilst undertaking a black grouse survey for a proposed wind farm site in rural Aberdeenshire, that I was treated to one of the best views I’ve ever encountered of lekking black grouse . As is often the case, the lek was centred in an open area of short grassland, dotted by soft rush, which was situated adjacent to an abandoned croft house (at the head of a small valley). Although the local gamekeeper, who was genuinely ‘proud of his birds’, told me there were a fair number of birds present, I was still delighted to record a total of 17 displaying males early one frosty March morning.
Having lived in Glasgow for most of my life, barring a five year stint in North Wales, you couldn’t blame most people for thinking it would take quite a few hours of driving outside of the city to reach the nearest suitable black grouse lek. However, this isn't the case, because one of the nearest black grouse leks is only a 30-minute drive north of the city. The lek in question is well documented and is located in Stirlingshire - on an area of managed amenity grassland, which is surrounded by a rich mosaic of moorland, grassland, scrub and woodland. The lek was first recorded in the mid-1980s, where it was used by a handful of birds, but has steadily grown in size to about 20 lekking males. However, within recent years the number of lekking males has undergone a dramatic, pronounced decline, with only one single lekking bird recorded in 2016. Having visited the lek three times over the last two weeks, it would appear the 2016 trend continues, as only one bird could be heard calling for a very short period of time. The reason for the unfortunate decline of this lek is thought to be due to a wide scale change in surrounding land use.
The plight of the Stirlingshire lek demonstrates the fragility of this species and it’s sensitivity to large-scale landscape change. Regrettably, this lek is not alone; it is the general consensus throughout the scientific community that black grouse populations throughout northern Europe are in decline, and have been declining since the 1900s. All evidence to date suggests the observed decline is a direct result of radical habitat change, which has led to a reduction in available nesting sites and loss of food plants. It is due to the rapid acceleration in this species’ decline over the last 25+ years that black grouse is listed as a species of high conservation concern within the United Kingdom. However, the outlook is not as bleak as it may appear… The encouraging news is that a wealth of work is being undertaken to help achieve a sustainable black grouse population, through cooperation between policy makers, invested landowners, local communities, and organisations such as Scottish Natural Heritage and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
For anyone who is wondering about the fate of that historical job application, clearly my ‘application’ glibness resonated with my potential employer, because although I wasn’t successful in securing the role, I was invited for an interview, where ‘my love affair’ was top of the interview panels' list of questions!
Interested in seeing lekking black grouse? Well, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has written a set of important guidelines for anyone wanting to watch lekking black grouse. The guidelines, which are free to download from the following link, have been written to ensure black grouse leks are not disturbed during this critical period of their breeding cycle: http://bit.ly/2oYu94l. In addition, organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds only have a finite resource and regularly need help with surveying. If you think you could help and have the necessary survey skills, then get in touch with the society and volunteer your services!