Meeting Report: Black Grouse and the Ever-Changing Uplands

25 October 2013
Patrick Laurie (The Heather Trust)

Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society were given a talk by Patrick Laurie, a member of staff of The Heather Trust, the independent charity which represents the interests of moorland and upland areas. He is based at Holywood.

He has a particular interest in black grouse and his talk concentrated on the plight of the species in Dumfries and Galloway.

The speaker contrasted the extent of black grouse distribution in 1970, when Dumfries and Galloway held the highest concentration of black grouse in Scotland, with that today, when there is a decimated population in a widely fragmented distribution.

Mr Laurie identified the major cause of population decline as the later stages of afforestation. In the early years of planting black grouse benefit from the cessation of intensive farming. In addition the bare peat provides a favourable habitat for the young chicks and affords them exposure to grit. By the time plantations are ten years old, however, the benefits of open ground are gone and the dense plantations harbour predators, both mammal and raptor. There is a danger of collision with fences and, in the past, there was some persecution as black grouse were considered to damage young trees by browsing on buds or by sheer weight of perching on saplings.

Lek size in Dumfries and Galloway has fallen from averaging over 70 cocks in 1970 to less than 10 today when perhaps only 200 cocks remain. Young birds will disperse up to 20 miles. It is important that they come into contact with lekking birds during the period of behavioural latency so that they 'learn' the appropriate breeding behaviour. This would normally be fulfilled by encountering the autumn pseudo leks. Mr Laurie postulated that in the past there was a series of large lek hubs spread over the whole region which enabled dispersing birds to encounter large leks. Now birds of both sexes are tending to display aberrant behaviour which may in the long term affect the viability of the population.

Mr Laurie is an advocate of locally informed conservation measures. As an example he noted food preferences in different parts of Britain: birch in Perthshire; hawthorn in Northumberland; willow and rowan in Dumfries and Galloway. He feels that the standard generalist conservation pattern with a wide range of shrub species, based on Scandinavian methods, was, perhaps diluting effort for British races of the birds.

Patrick Laurie’s book Black Grouse is published by Merlin Unwin Books, ISBN: 978 1 906122 43 0.