Farming for Grouse

The five acre field (through the gate) will be the site of the first arable crop in more than twenty years on the Chayne.

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.



One thought on “Farming for Grouse

  1. Harrier fanatic

    I think a big problem moving forward will be that habitat losses and fragmentation will not allow for BK to increase. Vast forests which have removed good habitat and ever-more efficient farms, will reap the rewards for not listening to the conservationist telling them to plant woodlands, will see to that. The country will need to produce more food from less land so don’t expect a big take up from agri-env schemes in the future, the emphasis will be food production as the market will dictate demand. Increased demand will stoke farm gate prices and pressure on the remaining portion of the environment will be extreme. Where this leaves BK is quite predictable, i think their range will shrink further and a once widespread bird, adaptable and tough will disappear as we get first prize and a distinction for idiocy in our stewardship of the uplands.

    The RSPB will have stopped planting trees to save BK and Mark Avery will have shot the last UK Peewit as it sat on a tree at Abernethy, the realms of fantasy it may be but i make these two scenarios both equally as likely to happen.

    Well Patrick i may be a miserable old sod and hopefully i’m also way off the mark, but trends there is and them trends aint good.

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