Bit by bit, my general ignorance is being broken up.
I always used to wonder how small, isolated populations of red grouse avoided becoming inbred and genetically unviable – my birds being a great example. Surrounded on three sides by commercial forestry, my farm is about a third of a 4,000 acre square of viable red grouse habitat. There are other good areas for grouse within a few miles, including an up and coming grouse moor of more than 3,000 acres which lies on the other side of a vast sitka spruce plantation. I used to worry that my birds were the dwindling sparks of an isolated population which would soon become the genetic equivalents of the film “Deliverance” – (not many of them, but boy, can they play the banjo).
That was until I flushed a grouse yesterday afternoon. A familiar shape was sitting on part of a post and rail fence next to a strip of mature pine trees. My first reaction was that it was a greyhen, but as I got closer, it emerged that it was a red grouse cock. As if to confirm his identity, he cackled furiously and set off due west, over an area of clear fell trees and down a ride that, when you look at it on a map, does not emerge into open ground for more than two miles. Not only was this grouse cock more than a mile away from anywhere I have ever seen a red grouse before, but he was heading on a particularly strange tangent right into the heart of some pretty inhospitable looking country.
Now, it could be that this bird was a total freak and had some sort of a death wish, but it’s more likely that he was going through a kind of dispersal drive on his way off the Chayne, heading for pastures new. The fact that he had broader horizons than the immediacy of what I had imagined was suitable grouse habitat was a crucial lesson. Rolling it out, it seems that the 4,000 acres I thought my red grouse were limited to actually looks like it could be something more like 10,000 acres. It’s probably very unlikely that there is a great deal of movement over such a huge area, but all the birds need is the occasional itinerant cock to move from one hill to the other and the cycle can continue.
It came as a revelation to see that red grouse can step well outside the comfort zone provided by heather moorland if they think it’s worth it, and so many isolated populations of grouse that I know of in Galloway suddenly have their viability explained. I grind away at this project every day, and while I wouldn’t ever complain about it, it sometimes feels like a slow process. Every now and again, though, something like this happens and blows the lid off my understanding.