Grouse, Trees and Politics

Black grouse do use trees, but not like the "experts" tell us.

Given the fact that the Chayne is bordered on three sides by commercial forestry of various ages, I was aware that Galloway’s numerous woodland management bodies are involved in some sort of biodiversity work. They’ve planted apologetic stands of rowan and birch amongst their sitka swathes, which serve no purpose other than to show that they’re slightly ashamed of having put in a toxic monoculture last time around. These little publicity stunts won’t do much good for black grouse, and it’s interesting to see how the persecuted “woodland pest” of the 1960s and 1970s has become the flagship for today’s forestry conservation work.

The association that black grouse have with trees is subject to a great deal of controversy. The birds clearly use trees at certain times of year, but they are not woodland birds by any stretch of the imagination. Many woodland projects in the south of Scotland claim to be being planted in the name of black grouse conservation, and several are in the process of destroying quality moorland habitat and replacing it with vermin infested woodland which quickly loses its potential to sustain anything. When I first went (naively) to the RSPB for advice on black grouse conservation, I was told to plant the moorland and watch the birds go from strength to strength. If I ever meet that consultant again, he’s in for an earful.

Black grouse were at their most plentiful in Scotland in the late eighteenth century, at a time when Dr. Johnson toured the country and remarked that “a tree in Scotland is as rare as a horse in Venice”. Scotland’s woodlands were non existent, but, as Walter Scott wrote at the time, “the hills are ever thick with blackcock”. Our birds don’t need trees half as much as they need well managed moorland and protection from predators.

Planting large quantities of trees for black grouse is a fool’s errand, and the money is always far better spent on burning heather and killing foxes. However, with an overweight First Minister demanding that 25% of Scotland be covered with trees by 2050, misleading advice is everywhere. Hardly surprisingly, SNH, Forestry Commission Scotland and RSPB Scotland all get grants, funding or subsidy from the Scottish Executive, so the idea that trees encourage black grouse is a nice spin to put on an idiotic political goal.

As a result, black grouse are now being used as a tool by forest managers who are trying to justify their ongoing destruction of the uplands, and by rustly jacketed suburban researchers with obvious financial motives. Foresters were the single handed source of black grouse collapse in Dumfries and Galloway. To see them strut and boast about their valiant conservation crusade today would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

Having been shown apparently “secret” (although God knows why) RSPB survey figures for black grouse in Dumfries and Galloway this spring, I see that there are a number of leks within five miles of the Chayne, and they lie in almost every direction. My only hope is that the credit crunch puts paid to any new plantations which have been spuriously “designed” to sustain and bolster their numbers.


2 thoughts on “Grouse, Trees and Politics

  1. Chris Land

    The efforts that the estates put in to conserve the suite of upland birds that have disappeared from large areas of their former range remain unrecognised and by all accounts unwanted. Instead of Hen Harrier Black Grouse and Curlew we have to glory in the knowledge that Chaffinch numbers are high and Crossbill are doing rather well. At the mention of Black Grouse and Curlew we must say we are doing everything possible. Forestry is seen by some as the form horse in the race to rid rural Scotland of private landownership, by some as a good way to make money and by others as a way of providing great places to ride their bikes. I’m afraid Black Grouse do not ride bikes aren’t that good at making money and as far as i can tell are not inclined to conspire against landowners. I therefore agree that forests are useless for Black Grouse. The 21st century conservation pygmies will always manage to blame the man in tweed for low numbers of birds of conservation concern, at least while the man in tweed exists. You could write a book on the forestry industry and it’s trashing of the Southern Uplands. You could also write a better book on the pseudo conservation bodies stance on upland birds. Question. If you wanted to conserve Black Grouse a species that spent 98% of its time on heather dominated ground would you A) work tirelessly to try and expand the pathetic extent of heather on the hill to ensure the species can thrive, or B) plant woodland (the main factor in the species decline) . If you answered A you are a useless conservationist, if you answered B then take a bow my friend you are truly a visionary and have a great future in conservation, well as long as you can convince the powers that be that only you can provide the answers to the inexorable decline of wildlife.

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