The great half-truth of black grouse conservation is the way that birds use trees. Search for black grouse on google and it won’t be long before you find screeds of information about black grouse in woodland, complete with images of community initiatives which get people out onto the hills with bags of trees, as if timber itself was the cure for everything which has befallen black grouse over the past forty years.
I’ve written in some detail before on this blog about the cynical money-go-round which is designed to perpetuate the link between black grouse and trees. Basically, it suits the nation to be planting trees just now, and any excuse to bash more trees into the ground is greeted with open arms. The fact that black grouse numbers showed a temporary blip after the uplands were planted with softwoods in the latter half of the 20th Century apparently serves as irrefutable proof that the situation that the birds are now in can only be solved by further extensive planting. The Scottish Executive is (as a result of the WEAG’s work) currently considering planting up 270,000 Ha of “unimproved grassland” in Scotland with softwood forests, as well as covering 150,000 Ha of “shrub heath” with trees of one kind or another. Both of these land types are theoretically suitable for black grouse already, and if they are not providing birds with food now, a certain amount of attention to grazing levels and predation control could probably bring most of them up to speed. But for better or worse, the Scottish Executive must have its trees.
Trees are a politically loaded symbol – you can “hug” them and describe them as the “lungs of the planet”. Everyone wants to be “green”, and it looks good to tell voters how many acres of woodland you are prepared to subsidise. It’s harder to visualise the Carbon storage capacity of peatland, so a tired old scots pine tree is wheeled out time and time again to illustrate the importance of environmental sensitivity. Tied into this is the idea of black grouse – the definitive icon of irresponsible land management in the past half century. Politicians and conservationists are determined that “something should be done” to save black grouse, but sadly, larsen traps and muirburn are too linked to the shooting industry. It is much more savoury to “go public” with the socially neutral idea of tree planting – to fill perfectly good (or potentially good) black grouse habitat with trees – it ticks all the boxes in terms of “ecosystem services”, community benefits, and for the forestry commission, it is a conspicuous penance for having flattened black grouse in the first place. It is insanity disguised as madness, and yet again, black grouse will bear the brunt of the fall-out.
Harping on about this collective idiocy serves little purpose, but it is always worth remembering that there were more black grouse in Scotland than there ever were or will be again during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when visitors to the country often remarked on how few trees there were to be seen North of the border. Regardless of what happens in Scandinavia (where black grouse really are forest birds), evidence seems to suggest that in many areas of Britain, our birds are perfectly happy with almost no trees at all. They might need some birch buds or rowan berries when the weather starts to get hard or larch buds just before laying, but throughout the year there is plenty to keep them going in the inbye fields and on marginal hill ground. Black grouse always did very well in the Pennines where there are no trees at all, and they only got into trouble during the recent hard winters (2009/2010 etc) when they had no access to shelter from the cold. Trees are now being planted in Teesdale to make sure that a cold winter never has such a devastating effect again, but those trees are nothing more than an insurance policy against disaster.
During a normal year, I believe that the key asset provided by trees is camouflage. During the nineteenth century, there were few birds of prey in Scotland and black grouse didn’t need to be as cautious as they do today. The huge majority of young black grouse are killed by raptors (although few people will admit it), and so the black grouse conservationist needs to create a habitat which is designed to confound birds of prey. We don’t have a functioning food chain in this country, and anyone who thinks that goshawks and black grouse will reach a “predator-prey equilibrium” is making a fool of themselves. There is nothing inherently powerful about birds of prey – it is humans who tipped the balance so far against black grouse and made them so vulnerable to predation, so it must be humans who correct that balance again.
Perhaps what we need now is something slightly more advanced than simply the blind, proscriptive idea that planting is the answer. We need to manage the uplands to a sufficient standard that black grouse have access to the feeding they need, but they also need access to cover and security. Based on what I’ve seen, black grouse seldom use trees for feeding but depend upon them for camouflage and security. This is different further North in Scotland where trees are used a great deal for feeding, but a bird that is as variable in its behaviour as a black grouse will always take on regional habits.
Flush a blackcock in the open on the Chayne and he’ll normally head for some kind of scrub or cover. Watch one of my blackcock being put off the hill by a raptor and he will make a bee-line for trees. Most importantly, black grouse are sometimes so terrified by an exposure to raptors that they will alter their behaviour and come over very strange. Their breeding behaviour can become dysfunctionally weird, so that even if they survive an “attack” in the Spring, they might not get over the stress for several days and miss key reproductive opportunities. Trees are the safe “base” – the known, secure area from which trips into the open are conducted. I don’t know if this is the way it is for other birds in areas of high raptor presence, but it is certainly the way that my birds behave. This behaviour changes slightly during the summer, when leafy trees are as helpful for predators as they are for prey, but it certainly rings true during the exposed, dangerous days of winter.
I spent the first four years of this project railing against trees and blaming them for many of the black grouse’s problems. I am now planting small strips, spinneys and rows of trees in places where they might be of some use to birds looking for cover. From what I have seen, deciduous scrub is many times more appealling than evergreen trees are, and I am now working on specific shapes of woodland which might be actively awkward as hunting grounds for birds of prey. It seems that, as a compromise with trees, I’m now trying to design a habitat which suits the black grouse’s need for security and which at the same time is as unappealling as I can make it for aerial hunters.