In March, a comparatively small area of moorland near the Chayne was ploughed by the foresters, who then planted it up with sitka spruce trees. This process is probably the single most irreversibly damaging thing that you can do to a sensitive (and peat based) moor, but it is interesting to see what sort of ground is created in the immediate aftermath of commercial planting. This kind of habitat is the classic false sanctuary of black grouse, providing them with everything they need and leading (at least traditionally) to great population explosions for a few short years before turning into dark, gloomy jungles of hostile spruce trees.
The most striking thing I noticed today when I walked through the plot is that there is a huge amount of heather and it all looks in very good shape. The area that will become a wood has been fenced off from the sheep, and I have seen a stalker moving through the high ground during the summer. As a result, the moor has had a near total reprieve from grazing of any sort, and already you can see the benefit. At close quarters, some of the folded turfs have got little heather seedlings on them, and it is clear that a huge amount of seeds, nutrients and fertile potential has been unleashed by the plough. Add to this the fact that, where the plough blade has hit stone, fans of grit are easily visible on the surface of the peat. On vegetation alone, it is perfectly easy to see how these young plantations were able to boost black grouse numbers when they were put into the uplands from the 1960s on.
More subtly, the actual terrain itself has been altered to the advantage of blackgame by the passage of the plough. Darwin noted that blackcock evolved to be well camouflaged against a backdrop of heather and exposed peat haggs, and when it comes to furrowed moorland, the hiding places are limitless. Also, the numerous trenches provide cover and shelter against the elements, as I was forced to discover as a scouring rain shower came raking in from the west, leaving me without any shelter for several hundred yards in any direction. I crouched down into the haggs and was relatively dry when it ended a quarter of an hour later.
It was recently pointed out to me that, because it is black, bare peat holds its heat. The effects of the sun have a strong warming effect on peat, even in cold, damp conditions and particularly where it has shelter from the wind. When you imagine a cold, wet black grouse chick staggering through the heather behind its mother, you can picture the rejuvenating pleasure it would get from squatting down out of the wind on what is effectively an electric blanket of exposed soil. In no time, little birds can get a big boost from warm peat, and even if they are not being brooded, they can still stay cosy and warm without any trouble at all. With acres of exposed peat, perhaps that is yet another reason why black grouse responded so dramatically to plantation ploughing.
Where plantations were made up of Scots Pines (more on the northeastern side of Britain), blackgame could annihilate the young saplings, but on the west coast where sitka spruce has been the Forestry Commission’s weapon of choice, the damage had more of a mechanical nature. The blackgame would eat some of the buds and shoots (particularly with larch), but the worst damage was as a result of clumsy perching, snapping off the spruce leaders and spoiling the shape of the mature tree. I’ve written on this blog before about the way birds were persecuted as pestilent villains during the days of the big plantings, and in many cases it seems like they deserved their reputation.
When an upland area is ploughed for trees, all kinds of negative knock-on effects upset everything from salmon to short eared owls. Black grouse were one of the only species to really capitalise on extensive planting, but their success was inevitably short-lived. As the trees grow, the habitat changes and it is obvious that if I try and return to this spot (in the picture above) in ten years time, I will see a drastically altered piece of moorland. I don’t know if there are blackgame on this small plot, but they are certainly nearby. The dog put up three red grouse shortly before this picture was taken, demonstrating that it is not only blackgame that benefit from the plough in the early days.
Unfortunately, the illusive boom in black grouse numbers following this form of management has given the Forestry Commission the idea that black grouse love commercial woodland. They don’t seem to understand that it is only ever a one-off blip which accompanies the ploughing of virgin white moorland, and that it has nothing whatsoever to do with spruce trees. When you read their literature, they keenly explain that black grouse like “young plantations”, as if there is something that really turns the birds on about regimented lines of softwood saplings. The fact that there are still some black grouse on Forestry Commission plantations says more about how good the ground used to be, so that even after it is decimated by trees, it can still support a handful of birds.
When an area of mature woodland is felled and replanted with a new crop, there is no boom in black grouse numbers. This is partly to do with the fact that the area has (through neglect) been given forty years to fill up with foxes and corbie crows, but is mainly because the huge benefits of the plough are not called for again. If the heather and blaeberry do somehow respond to the brief window of sunlight allowed to them between crop rotations, neither will have time to prosper before the canopy closes again and the land is lost to darkness for another forty years. Usually, the thick mat of pine needles means that nothing comes through anyway.
If there was a way of freezing this habitat transition from moorland to woodland, we would have nothing to worry about when it comes to black grouse conservation. As it is, it would be difficult to imagine a more destructive process for the uplands.