I was very interested to see this picture taken of a sign at Coed Llandegla in North Wales, which was sent to me by fellow blogger Sam Thompson. The statement that over 50% of the UK population of black grouse lives in North Wales caught my eye, because if this was true, then Wales would be the number one battleground in the war to save these birds. At the latest lek count (2013), this figure (both for cocks and when extrapolated into birds of both sexes) is out by a factor of more than ten, since only around 5% of the UK population lives anywhere in Wales. I am quite confident that this statistic has never been true at any stage in Britain’s natural history, so I wonder how it found its way into this “fact box” without someone having a chance to proofread it.
The situation with black grouse in North Wales is fascinating, and I’m heading down to have a look at some conservation work in Denbighshire tomorrow. Wales is not somewhere I’ve spent much time, partly because it is a four hour drive from Galloway, and partly because, sadly, there are not a lot of birds to see when you get there. However, the type of black grouse habitat in Wales is quite similar to that now found in Galloway, with large areas of the wet, western uplands now over-run with commercial softwood forestry. Like Galloway, Wales struggles to reconcile black grouse conservation with the commercial production of timber, and as a result, numbers of black grouse are at worryingly low levels.
Despite a huge amount of money being spent on managing woodland for black grouse in Wales, the real concentrations are inevitably out in the open, for the simple reason that, as everywhere, birds don’t like commercial woodland – particularly when there is no predator control in operation. I feel like a stuck record saying it, but it has become the motto of this blog – “birds don’t like commercial woodland”. Sadly (and maddeningly), lesson 1A on black grouse conservation for every ecologist in Britain continues to be “birds love commercial woodland”.
Recent RSPB press releases enthusiastically announced that black grouse numbers were “back from the brink” and “flying high”, but with a surveyed population of just over three hundred cocks in the entire country, the situation is far from rosy. The Welsh RSPB are extremely vocal and possessive about black grouse, and their press releases always attribute any progress to the “RSPB and its partners”, which is technically true, but does little to acknowledge the work being carried out by a major private sporting estate and several other landowners and conservation bodies. It is great that there is an growing number of black grouse in Wales, but this needs to be seen in a wider context. For example, with ongoing decline in Northern England, it is unclear how the Welsh birds will ever be able to link up with other populations again, posing all kinds of long term questions about the viability of a relic population.
It certainly is noteworthy that these partners have stopped the decline of black grouse, but restoring numbers and building a healthy population of birds that doesn’t just go “down the pan” during the next wet summer is the real challenge.