Good to see that the Forestry Commission and others are keen to trumpet the recent increase in black grouse numbers, which, as well as the small matter of mild weather conditions, was apparently brought about by woodland expansion projects… (?)
Yet again the great lie of black grouse conservation rears its head, just as it suits government agencies to cast their destructive activities in a favourable light. It is now the case that hundreds of thousands of pounds are being spent each year on woodland planted specifically for black grouse, but look at the requirements dictated by the SRDP (Scottish Rural Development Programme) for woodland creation and you’ll see that, in order to qualify for that public money, the Forestry Commission requires new plantations of conifers to be at a density of 2,500 trees per hectare and broadleaves at 1,100 trees per hectare. These densities are, at their worst, around five times more than what the GWCT recommends for planting in the name of black grouse (400-800 p/Hec), and while it’s possible to thin out those dense plantations after ten years, it seems nonsensical to waste public money to do something wrong in the knowledge that it will need to be fixed later on.
Ironically, the same SRDP system of grants actually subsidises the destruction of scrub woodland which black grouse probably would use and favour.
The grey area is that some woodland is good for black grouse, and knowing that the general public doesn’t really care enough to count stems per hectare, the Forestry Commission is still creating plantations which are totally unsuitable for birds while simultaneously claiming to be acting for their greater good. They can get away with it not only because the details are boring, but also because they have recently started to hijack leks as a public spectacle, offering bird watchers the opportunity to sit in a FC endorsed hide while an ever diminishing number of displaying birds capers and tumbles around like performing monkeys in a cynical circus.
Given that, in Galloway at least, the Forestry Commission was the chief reason for the decline of black grouse, their concern is hypocritical, particularly since they now seem to believe that black grouse can be saved from extinction by the same woodland expansion that drove them into a tail spin in the first place.
In their own Action Plan, the Forestry Commission lists the reasons for black grouse decline in a number of bullet points. After a brief discussion of changes to farming and just before a vague mention of predation (which makes no reference to birds of prey), the leaflet grudgingly concedes the “probability” that:
“Afforestation has probably led to a reduction in the overall habitat suitable for black grouse“
but defends itself immediately afterwards with:
“both new planting and clearfelling/replanting operations create temporary areas of suitable habitat. Felling also provides opportunities for restructuring woodland edges to provide more valuable open canopies and scattered trees”.
The keyword in that qualifying sentence is “temporary”. The rest of it could be paraphrased as “we’ve royally cocked up the countryside for black grouse, but we didn’t do it quite as thoroughly as we could’ve done, and we sometimes try and fix bits of it”.
The Forestry Commission is getting black grouse conservation wrong. They are spending thousands of pounds on strategies which are not showing fruit. Aside from one or two flagship plantations (mainly in Wales), there is no evidence whatsoever that commercial woodland ever sustainably improves black grouse numbers. Far better to chip in when you can and say that woodland expansion is key to the survival of black grouse everytime the RSPB turn up some positive survey results that they weren’t expecting and which were probably due solely to good weather. That way, it convinces people that what you’re doing makes sense because it’s good for the environment.
For whatever reason, the Scottish Government is determined to expand the woodland coverage of Scotland by 10,000 hectares per year (which, in a worst case scenario equates to 25 million sitkas, (or five for every person in Scotland) every year), but the precise definition of what constitutes woodland remains ambiguous. Will these new woods be made up of native trees at reasonable densities, or will they just be a cover for the relentless expansion of commercial forest at the cost of heather moorland, peatland and all associated bird, mammal and insect species?
If it’s going to be done, so be it. But let’s not pretend that it’s going to help black grouse.