I’m grateful to Mike Groves who sent me this appalling picture of a greyhen sitting on an area of what seems to be clear-felled sitka spruce in Angus. The picture was taken a few weeks ago, right in the middle of the black grouse breeding season, and it makes the blood run cold to wonder where her poults are.
In many areas, commercial afforestation with foreign softwood species has been largely responsible for the destruction of black grouse populations. Foresters regarded black grouse as pests, treading on nests and treating birds as vermin wherever they found them. In more enlightened times (or since numbers crashed and birds no longer posed a financial threat), foresters have seized onto black grouse as a cause celebre, ironically re-branding the same bird they used to despise as a symbol of sustainable arboriculture. Because the foresters were too inefficient to wipe out black grouse altogether, the few scanty populations which survive around commercial woodlands are now treated as conservation projects as part of a shamefully inadequate attempt to offset the millions of acres of wrecked peatland, moorland and upland habitats.
To show that they are about more than making money, foresters now offer a range of black grouse conservation projects for the amusement of the British public. Leks have become rarefied tourism opportunities, and if you book far enough in advance (to ensure disappointment), an RSPB volunteer in a polyester jacket will take you to a forest hide where you can sit with a group of bobble hatted people and watch them unwrap their clingfilmed sandwiches. It is highly unlikely that there will be much else to see from the deep within the sitka forests, because there has been never been a successful attempt to knit black grouse into non-native commercial U.K. forestry. At best, visitors manage to take photographs of distant black speks in groups of two and three, claiming their trip a triumph when the reality is that, without forestry, they could be seeing twenties and thirties.
So while black grouse photographers take pictures at leks (and to be honest some of the pictures really are fantastic), they build an atmosphere which suggests that the lek is the single most important thing about black grouse conservation. So sacrosanct are leks that they are specifically mentioned in planning applications – windfarms are delayed by lek sites and the casual observer is not even allowed to step outside his car within hundreds of metres. But all this fastidious fretting is for nothing unless we follow it up with real, practical conservation measures throughout the year.
Why should we tiptoe around leks in April if we only intend to scatter and smash the young broods by clear felling adjacent forestry just a few weeks later?
For all that the foresters drone on about the value of commercial woodland to black grouse, it is so clearly just a gesture. Although they will never admit it, it is obviously the case that non-native softwood plantations are just no good for black grouse. In some cases a vestige of birds will linger around plantings for a surprisingly long time, even after the closure of the canopy, but these remnants are often so frail and logistically doomed that they are already in a glass case.
The very least that foresters can do is integrate the black grouse’s seasonal requirements into the planting and felling calendar, but as this picture (above) demonstrates, even that is apparently impossible. Out on the open hill, managed by gamekeepers, black grouse go from strength to strength each year, putting to shame the best efforts of forest conservationists who have been tasked with making black grouse fit into a habitat they can’t use. It might be possible to create woodland habitats for black grouse, but there is no way that such a planting would be commercially viable (as if an entire industry subsidised by the government could be described as truly “viable” anyway). Yet again, I’m afraid that in the choice between black grouse and profit (no matter how small), there is only ever one winner.
Incidentally, this photograph was taken on a plantation managed by Scottish Woodlands, which, in their own publicity material, claim “Expertise in Black Grouse Management”.