Over the past three years of my project (and two of this blog), I’ve learned a great deal. When I started, I had never even seen a lek or heard a drumming snipe, but visiting the Chayne every day has been very revealing. Ultimately, I hope to get black grouse back to the stage at which they can be shot again, but I also want to record my progress so that, hopefully, writing about my mistakes will help others avoid making them.
One of the most striking things I’ve learned about black grouse is the sheer variety of different habitats they choose to live in. A bird so often described as being tied to heather in the same way as red grouse was once living in every county in mainland Britain, often many miles from what we today describe as heather moorland. Over the past century of decline, black grouse have been cast as “birds of the woodland” by foresters keen to justify their destruction of the uplands and as “birds of the moors” by shooting enthusiasts looking to provide another good reason to justify moorland management for driven red grouse. What has been forgotten is that during the black grouse’s best years in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, they were “birds of the farm”, through and through.
Upland farms provided black grouse with everything they needed throughout the year, from stubbles and hay meadows to hedge berries and cow shit full of undigested cereals. The traditional British agricultural calendar provided black grouse with food on an industrial scale, and they responded by expanding their range and numbers like the hill version of a grey partridge. They certainly used the open moors in the winter and resorted to the woods when the weather got really bad, but the history of black grouse is totally linked to their association with farming. When upland farms disintegrated, black grouse went with them. Most upland farms are now totally unable to provide food for birds because they are not used, worked or even properly drained and maintained.
One of my first major experiments this coming year is to get back into the ground and see if I can’t start the wheels of the farm turning again. I don’t expect to be producing waving seas of wheat or barley, but modest plots of arable crops which should give the local wildlife a real kickstart. I’ve sent soil samples from a single five acre field down to an agronomist in England and expect to hear back soon for some results. The field will inevitably need to be limed and fertilised, but the results of the sample will give me an idea of the crops I can look forward to experimenting with. Ideally, it’d be oats or turnips, but there are so many different options that I don’t want to set my heart on anything too soon.