The sustained release of fresh bloodlines amongst Galloway's black grouse population could save our birds.
Having travelled across the country last year researching the subject of black grouse, I came across some fascinating information. Perhaps most interesting of all is the work of a community group on the Isle of Arran which is dedicated to reintroducing black grouse to the island. After an absence of several years, the group was faced with all the problems associated with trying to create a new population of birds from scratch.
Not only do black grouse have complex dietary requirements which makes rearing them like pheasants extremely difficult, but they are also hard-wired to wander and disperse far and wide. This latter issue makes keeping a breeding population together for any amount of time very difficult indeed, and while leks can be set up artificially, they seldom prove to be sustainable as young birds grow up and search for new breeding grounds elsewhere. Young greyhens will leave their family broods whether they have somewhere to go or not, and half of each lek’s chicks will vanish in the autumn. A reintroduction project needs to set up several interlinking leks if it ever hopes to sustain itself, because without somewhere for young greyhens to move to in their first year, it just becomes a matter of time before the project folds.
Reintroduction in an environment where there are no local birds has been shown to be a tricky business. It is clearly not impossible, but in the name of a bird which many people view as nothing more than a pretty face, perhaps it doesn’t recieve the funding or research that it should. Less well documented is the same process of releasing hand reared birds in an environment in which black grouse still survive. Dumfries and Galloway’s population of black grouse is almost non-existent, and given that I have spoken to a number of people who have seen that greyhens failed to go down on their eggs properly this year, it could be that inbreeding is starting to take its toll. Brood sizes have been falling for the past few years across the county, and it could be that the local population is so scant that it is now killing itself.
Theoretically, an infusion of hand reared birds could make a massive difference to the ailing population. Within a single generation, bloodlines could be revitalised and black grouse could be looking at making a resurgence. Not only would there be immediate improvements in genetic diversity, but many of the problems associated with reintroduction could be eliminated. Young greyhens conceived at artificial leks could move away to existing and natural leks, dispersing their genetic information in an active sense, rather than fading fruitlessly into the distance.
Making the most tentative enquiries, I see that a release project in Galloway could be done. It would be costly and time consuming, and it would need to be done in the next five years, before inbreeding weakens the local population any further.
A cynical part of me wonders why Galloway has no existing infrastructure to invest in black grouse. My “plan” to release birds is not exactly the most original or innovative, so why has nobody else thought of it? In reality, I suppose that it’s because Galloway is paying the price of being a quiet rural backwater. Any conservation investment would struggle to see a return because comparatively few people visit the county, and it would fail as an attraction for tourists. Contrary to crowing statistics published by the RSPB, the reintroduction of red kites has clearly failed to provide the county with anything like the intended boost to tourism, and public investment in a second major conservation project seems unlikely.
Astonishingly, many of the private investors who should be involved in a project like this have no interest because they truly believe that black grouse died out in Galloway a long time ago. They have already given up, which is slightly shameful given that these are the people who grew up shooting blackgame.
It’s a hell of a mountain to scale, but it could be that over the next few months, I start to put some thought and groundwork into an artificial release of black grouse in Galloway.