History has shown us that black grouse and commercial forestry do not make good bedfellows. The huge population crashes of the seventies and eighties in southern Scotland coincided precisely with the birth of expansive sitka spruce plantations, and it would be hard to imagine a better way of destroying quality habitat than by draining it and planting it with millions of foreign trees which are used to make low quality wood pulp.
Despite the best efforts of public and private forestry workers who consciously tried to stamp black grouse out of existence because they were damaging the new trees, a few birds survived the onslaught. These small colonies of birds now hang around commercial woodlands in Lanarkshire, Wales, the Borders and Galloway as something of a pathetic reminder of just what it has cost Britain to produce moderate quality trees. There are now a handful of tiny, pathetic leks where there were once huge, healthy populations of birds, and in an odd turn of events, the same organisations which caused such damage have now started to half-heartedly endorse the birds as symbols of woodland conservation.
The Forestry Commission and the RSPB are frequently seen in each others’ pockets, and the two are now working together in a number of locations to promote the cause of black grouse.
I’ve written on this blog before about just how perfectly useless mature sitka spruce are to black grouse, but because sitka spruces are the name of the game for the foresters, these conservation attempts tend to happen in the vicinity of those trees – an attempt to knit conservation into industry which increasingly seems like more of a token gesture than a real dedicated attempt to improve the situation.
Even in the last three years, the big leks of the Galloway Forest Park have dwindled ever further, and two of the leks I used to go and see have now become totally defunct. To perpetuate the conservation project, the Forestry Commission claims that the Galloway Forest Park has the biggest population of black grouse in southern Scotland (which is totally false), but is faced with the increasing problem of being unable to show them off.
This is largely to do with the presence of 210 million non-native trees, but also has to do with a thriving population of foxes, goshawks, buzzards, peregrines, stoats, mink, badgers, pine martens, crows, ravens and weasels. It’s interesting in this light to realise that after spending a great deal of money on a black grouse “viewing platform” complete with patronising “interpretation boards” overlooking what was a large lek site in the Galloway Forest Park, the Forestry Commission (in partnership with the RSPB) seem to have invested in an unlikely insurance policy. They employ a gamekeeper.
The man in question is responsible for trapping crows, stoats and mink, and the presence of a lamping torch mounted on the roof of his 4×4 would suggest that he also trades in foxes. He’s not given official recognition or provided with charity branded clothing or vehicles, but he certainly does receive money in return for killing predators on a part-time basis.
The manager of the Galloway Forest Park has told me “face to face” that no predator control takes place in the forest, and there is no mention of predator control anywhere in the Forestry Commission’s literature. It’s certainly not mentioned on the brightly coloured RSPB endorsed “interpretation panels”, but it is happening. If it wasn’t, the viewing platform would have very little to “view” except empty moorland.
It’s too easy to crow over their hypocrisy and say that gamekeepers were right all along. It’s better to let the secret out of the bag in the hope that other conservation projects will see that controlling predators is a vital part of black grouse conservation. You can’t do it on habitat management alone, and in the case of commercial woodland, you can’t do it at all unless you’ve got a keeper on the ground.