I had a very interesting morning last week counting on a moor in Perthshire where the grouse move in very mysterious ways. Despite showing very well during the spring pair counts, the August counts are usually well down, with many of the pairs absent altogether. Being a west-coaster born and bred, the idea of water shortage is rather foreign to me, but it did seem like a possible explanation for these missing birds on the drier east when the summer is warm and dry. As we worked a pair of dogs through the sample strip, it did seem very dry underfoot, although some wetter splashes seemed to offer young birds something in the way of juice. What was unusual was that there was not even much in the way of shit or cast feathers. The strip seemed totally empty, despite having counted very well in March and consisting of some fantastic vegetation at a range of suitable ages. The way the ground was looking, it was as if there hadn’t been grouse in the area for some time. When we finally did come across soggy, rushy ground where water was available, we found no more sign of grouse than we had in the dry heath.
By this time of the year, grouse are more than capable of travelling several hundred yards to drink, so if they are lacking water on this strip, the simple solution would be for them to head down to the nearest splash or burn. There is a lack of water on this face, but there are wet areas nearby even in the driest of weather. Potentially, a small number of drinking areas would force hen grouse to have to trail their chicks in over long distances to drink every day, exposing them to danger every step of the way. In theory it is possible that the hens hatch beautifully and then gradually lose their broods as they are forced to commute long distances to drink, but this would normally show itself in August counts as pairs or singles with ones and twos, rather than nothing whatsoever. Besides, it is amazing what moisture grouse can extract from the heather itself, and while drinking is important, it is surprising how rare it is to see a grouse take water. After all, a blaeberry is essentially just a drop of water with a skin on it.
The keeper is considering trialling drinkers in the area and it will be interesting to see how these will be used. Worm counts are low and although ticks are a concern, a trial with tick mops is already underway. As much as it is gripping to dissect these difficulties, it sometimes seems as though there is just no answer. In conversation with the keeper, we covered more or less every possible explanation for this disappearance of birds, and each point was either dismissed or was already being covered.
From my perspective, the most tantalising part of the entire day was the last few hundred yards back to the land rover, where we found a lek site used by around ten blackcock. The heather was thick with moulted feathers, and I brought home a few grand, glossy question marks in my bag. While the red grouse prove to be elusive on this estate, the black grouse seem to be doing very well. They meet on this dry mound at first light every morning, moving off to slouch around in the woods during the day. Encouragingly, there was obvious shit from poults lying out in the heather, so it is to be hoped that this stronghold at least is safe.