I was thrilled to be asked up for some hind stalking in Aberdeenshire last week, and all the more excited to find that the area is home to a seriously impressive population of black grouse. During the course of a few hours out on the hill, I saw more blackcock than are present in the entire south west of Scotland, and hardly half an hour went by without greyhens or blackcock getting up out of the heather. There are enough black grouse on the estate for some to be shot each year, and while this would quite rightly bring howls of anguish in less fortunate areas, the local population is demonstrably strong enough to bear a certain shooting pressure.
It is very unfashionable to use Edwardian and Victorian thinking when it comes to moorland management, but the old idea of treating red and black grouse as “stock” shows some real advantages for productivity and breeding success. As with red grouse, black grouse respond positively to shooting. With red grouse, targeting and killing the older birds allows more younger, more productive pairs to take full advantage of the best territories. Likewise, killing old black grouse stock serves a similar (but slightly more complicated) function. There are a number of theories as to why killing old stock boosts a population of black grouse, but while science is unable to definitively explain it, there are lists of unrelated instances where shooting has been a positive force in encouraging the local population as a whole.
I have lost count of the number of leks I have seen in Galloway and across the Southern Uplands where the “lek master” blackcock is a wormy old knave, and his cronies are often of a similar ancient vintage and quality. It makes you shudder to think of the wretched, knackered old greyhens (who might only manage a handful of eggs) going on to claim the most fruitful nest sites.
I am always thrilled to see black grouse lekking, but it is amazing how seldom anyone seems to mark the age of the breeding stock or give it even a moment’s thought. Victorian keepers would probably laugh out loud to see the antiquity of some of the birds going around in today’s uplands, particularly in the North of England, where studies have shown that they frequently live twice as long as they do in Scotland, some of them lasting for seven or eight years. Amidst arguments about predation, global warming and habitat management, nobody is ever interested in the quality of the stock itself. Perhaps the idea of thinking about black grouse as a “stock” is too redolent of Victorian sport, and some conservationists are so obsessed with reinventing the wheel when it comes to game that they simply refuse to learn anything whatsoever from the acquired wisdom of two centuries of sporting management.
It is a sad indictment of the land that there are now so many scattered and apparently doomed populations of black grouse, and nobody would ever argue in favour of killing off old stock when you are down to the last few birds, but in an ideal world where it was possible to selectively kill off the oldsters, there would be a real benefit in doing so. This is one of the reasons why I have argued in the past for a Scandinavian style of “lek shooting” to be allowed in this country, in which old cocks could be targeted by riflemen. Perhaps I was being deliberately provocative by pressing for this, but it serves a useful point by reminding us that we should avoid wrapping this species in cotton wool. Shooting a couple of old blackcock under the supervision of a keeper or ghillie who is able to identify them not only benefits the stock at large, but it also brings an alluring financial revenue from black grouse which they sadly lack today.
It is ridiculous to ever publicly argue for an extended shooting season for black grouse, or even to breathe the fact that black grouse are still a legal quarry species. The advantages of shooting a stock as part of a management programme are too complicated to explain to a mass audience, and, as when I raised the issue in the Scotsman a few years ago, I was shot down in flames as some blood thirsty lunatic who wants to kill an endangered species. Lesson learned there: if you’ve got a complex and apparently controversial conservation point to make, don’t make it.
Suffice it to say that where black grouse are present in sufficient numbers to be shot, the action of shooting does the population no harm at all, and it frequently appears to boost the quality and productivity of the stock. An additional benefit to thinking of black grouse as “stock” is that the concept frees us from fretting and worrying about a population of birds as a series of anthropomorphic individuals, of which the loss of any one is a tragedy. We can make decisions that benefit the population as a whole, which is surely preferable to the determined preservation of every ornery old rogue.
There are plenty of possible explanations for why shooting black grouse is advantageous to the stock, and I have listened to many of them being argued and debated over shoot lunches and in keepers’ kitchens at the end of the day. Perhaps when black grouse are shot on driven days it is the old blackcock or barren greyhens which are hit hardest, since they will be half moulted singles or small gangs in August, making them conspicuous targets. In their absence, younger cocks and hens come through to boost the leks in April. Maybe when a brood crosses the line, the greyhen and a perhaps a single poult are killed, forcing the rest of the brood to disperse over the following days so that young blackcock are recruited into the packs at a better moment.
It might be that shooting hones a keener edge for wariness and self preservation, making birds wilder and better able to look after themselves. It is certainly the case that where black grouse are not shot, they can become surprisingly confiding. When you read the old Edwardian accounts of black grouse, they only had to glimpse a human face at five hundred yards and they’d be off, but today it is not unsurprising (even at this wild time of year) to be able to stand off birds at seventy yards in plain sight. Perhaps a contributing factor is simply that the action of physically stirring up birds during the autumn, which provides a stimulus for dispersal and inter-mixture.
Some argue that blackcock can be legitimately shot but greyhens must be preserved at all costs, while others claim that an excessively imbalanced population with a preponderance of greyhen battle-axes leads to in-fighting and a drop in productivity. Different results come from different kinds of shooting, but whatever the explanation and impact, there is no question that shooting has played a positive role in stock management for black grouse as it continues to do for red grouse. There are now so few places in this country where there are sufficient numbers of birds to shoot and subsequently study that perhaps we will never know the truth, but there is still considerable value in keeping these last few prosperous populations under traditional stock management.
Anyway, perhaps this is something worth coming back to. Whatever you think, when you are sitting in a peat hagg eating your lunch and watch a pack of twenty blackcock come barrelling into the icy wind with all of the snow-capped Grampians lying bare and wild at your feet, you can be forgiven if your heart skips a beat.