On Wednesday morning, I found a small tuft of greyhen feathers on the Chayne where a newly overhauled stretch of track has left piles of bare soil heaped up in the rushes. My first reaction was that a greyhen had been dustbathing on the exposed soil, where there was also a litter of pheasant and partridge feathers. Thrilled by the discovery, I scanned the three feathers onto the computer and made absolutely certain that there was no mistake. The creamy stripe which runs perpendicular to the shaft near its fine tip is fairly diagnostic, and after a few minutes of cross-checking, I found that the identification was correct. The greyhens on the Chayne (the ones I have seen) have been very red in colour, unlike birds from elsewhere, so while these feathers did seem a little dark, comparing them with photographs of greyhens that I have taken on the Chayne, there is no doubt.
Unfortunately, when I returned up the hill that evening and ran my eye across the same patch of baked soil, I found another feather. Following a very indistinct trail through the rushes, I came at last to a scattered pile of feathers a short distance away. Kneeling down, I found myself picking them all up one by one and searching for clues as to how this bird had met its end, as it clearly had. Almost all the feathers were from the area of the crop, with some longer feathers from the left flank and a small twist of plumes from the back of the neck. A single secondary covert feather had been nipped in half, and in that feather I recognised the culprit. A fox had killed this bird.
As the situation stands, I can’t afford to spare a single bird, and this loss hurts. Judging by the rest of the feathers, it looks like the greyhen was a first year poult, but it’s very hard to be certain when there is so little to work with. Fox predation on the Chayne is always going to be a major issue, and this has been a timely reminder of the value of keeping up with basil brush.
While the GWCT revels in good news from Teesdale concerning record broods of black grouse poults (one brood of eleven!), so many other areas of potential black grouse recovery are inevitably hamstrung by a lack of full-time professional gamekeeping. Arguably, the GWCT should devote their research to areas where predation and degraded habitat are consistently depressing black grouse populations, rather than sticking to Teesdale, which, while fantastically productive and encouraging, is an atypical form of upland. We’re not all lucky enough to be surrounded by grouse moors, and in the areas which are away from the high profile leks and media coverage, black grouse continue to nosedive into obscurity.
Walking in the hills near Moffat, I recently met a student who was studying red grouse populations on a well managed piece of moorland. I asked her if her study included black grouse and she replied that they were not present in sufficient numbers to be rigorously examined. She explained that she goes to Sweden to study black grouse. I can understand that if you’re interested in black grouse, you head for the places where they are to be found in reliable numbers, but I can’t help thinking that while all this research into healthy, prosperous black grouse populations is interesting, it is of limited value to people like me in marginal areas where leks continue to fail and vanish every year.
There wouldn’t be much money in conducting studies into failing populations, and the scientists involved would open themselves up to disastrous ridicule if their proscriptions did not bear fruit. It sometimes seems like the reasons for black grouse disappearance in obscure and marginal areas like Dumfries and Galloway are dismissed as thorny, risk-infested tangles. Black grouse conservation certainly seems too rich for the RSPB’s blood, since they seem to have backed off the subject altogether in recent months. There is effectively no work being done in the south west of Scotland by anyone (with a paltry minimum c/o Forestry Commission Scotland), and I wonder if the powers that be prefer to warm themselves on the comparatively easy glow of success generated by the North Pennines, Angus and Aberdeenshire.