What better way to spend a miserable sunday in June than by taking the dog for a walk in the Galloway Forest Park near Shalloch on Minnoch. There has been some minor coverage in the news about phytophthora outbreaks in Galloway, but it’s hard to over-emphasise just how dramatic thousands of dead larch trees look across hundreds of acres. With only a few exceptions, all the larch trees were either stone dead or fizzling out with just a scattering of healthy twigs and branches. The sitka spruces have not been affected by the disease, so they provided a surprisingly welcome green presence to the hills. I wouldn’t normally be pleased to see sitka spruce trees in any circumstance, but with the entire area blighted like the aftermath of some nuclear explosion, even spruces were welcome.
With classic irony, this strain of phytophthora has destroyed the only commercial tree species which has value to black grouse. Great expressionless acres of sitka continue to prosper over the southern uplands without challenge, whereas every larch tree infected deprives greyhens of yet another source of feeding.
At the head of the Minnoch glen, I stopped to look at what was formerly one of the biggest lek sites in Dumfries and Galloway. When I visited in 2009, there were 22 blackcock on the heather by the side of the road. This fell to five within a single year, and by 2011 there were only two birds. I haven’t seen black grouse at that lek for eighteen months, and despite being assured that some of those birds have moved elsewhere, there is no question that something has gone seriously wrong. The RSPB released statements last spring to say that the numbers of black grouse in the Galloway Forest Park went up in 2011-2012, but the population we’re talking about is still so piddling that there is very little to celebrate. Given the enthusiasm which pushed out these press releases, I daresay that it’s important to make the subscribing public feel as though their donations are being spent constructively, regardless of the context.
I had an interesting conversation with someone from the management of the Galloway Forest Park last year who claimed that Forestry Commission Scotland research had shown that predator control makes little difference for black grouse numbers, and he also visibly winced at the suggestion of burning heather as part of a management plan for black grouse. Ignoring the fact that the Galloway Forest Park actually does employ an “off-the-record” gamekeeper to control vermin in the vicinity of the lek sites, the decision not to burn is a pity. On conservation grounds, the land has been so monumentally banjaxed by the advent of commercial planting that fretting about the environmental impact of a few burns seems rather absurd. In truth, they’re probably too fretful that their trees might get singed, so the heather grows rank and useless while the walls of sitka shade it out. I can’t help thinking that proper moorland management on the unplanted areas (and there are some extensive areas without trees) would go some way towards mitigating the harm caused by the spruces, but this doesn’t seem to be of much interest to those responsible. Instead, the heather grows leggy and unable to support anything except the most determined meadow pipits. There should be blue hares and blackcock around every corner along that back road to Straiton, but (aside from it being late for leks etc.) I spent the day driving it yesterday and saw nothing more interesting than a single wheatear.
It was interesting to look at some experimental cuts which have been put into the heather around one of the main black grouse leks. This appears to be a compromise for failing to burn, and it is on such a miniscule scale that it merely draws attention to the half-hearted nature of the job. I am increasingly warming to cutting as a management technique, and as much as I was ready to pour scorn on some of the cuts near the lek sites, the regeneration was actually pretty good. One of the major downsides to cutting heather is the slow, difficult and expensive nature of the job. I have seen cutting on a few moors managed by charities who don’t like to burn, and my first reaction is usually: “is that all?” It becomes a major job to cut anything like as much heather as it is possible to burn in a similar timeframe, and many cutting enthusiasts are content to manage as much heather in a season as a burner could cover in a day. Where cutting has been impressive is where the cutters have really got stuck in and made a visible difference over several hard weeks of labour.
It is usually best to combine cutting and burning to get the best characteristics of both, and while advances in technology are making cutting ever more versatile and practical, there are serious restrictions of time and money when it comes to rolling it out on a landscape scale. As much as I’d love to see that big lek back on the roadside, I don’t think a few afternoons of the tractor pulling a disc flail around the place are going to make much of a difference.