Confidence and Secrecy

Conspicuous territory displays in mid-winter
Conspicuous territory displays in mid-winter

Further to my recent post about grouse mortality over the winter, I am starting to see why losses come in so steadily at this time of year. On a normal grouse moor, it is easy to see grouse cocks standing up proudly on every tussock and grit box, noisily advertising their position to all and sundry. This is presumably because they are confident enough to broadcast their location without fear of drawing in predators. The same is true of snipe, which frequently land on the coping stones of dykes and settle on the tops of fenceposts. I recently saw grit boxes in Aberdeenshire which were raised up on hummocks which must have been almost four feet above ground level, the logic being that cocks will confidently head for a high spot in order to mark their claim on a territory, and maybe be tempted to have a beak-full of grit while they’re at it.

By comparison, the grouse on the Chayne are almost never seen. The cocks call noisily at dawn and dusk, but they do so from thick cover. A few years ago, a team of bird surveyors came to write a report on the farm on account of a proposed windfarm. They sat out on the hill at all hours of the day, and when the report was finally compiled, they said that they had never seen a single grouse on the property. They had heard calls, but apparently this was inadmissible as evidence of grouse, since the sound could have blown in from neighbouring properties. Later that year, we shot two brace of grouse during a walked up day on the Twelfth of August, so there was never any doubt that the birds had been there all along.

It does suggest, in the absence of a full-time keeper, that the birds on the Chayne are a great deal more cautious and reluctant to spread the word about their whereabouts. In order to cater for this, my experiments with grit trays have revealed that the lower I set them into the ground, the more likely they are to be used. This is in direct opposition to real grouse moors, where the aim of the game is to design something like a “lookout post” from which the cock can keep tabs on his neighbours.

So far, so obvious.

But what with this past year having been so productive, I have noticed that grouse are becoming more visible on the Chayne. I watched a cock performing a kind of toned-down display flight two days ago, and saw a grouse standing on a stone in plain sight last week. There are fresh heaps of shit on the peat haggs at the high point of the moss, where any grouse standing would be visible for several hundred yards in all directions. This is all quite contrary to established tradition, and on one hand it has probably led to a few birds being killed by predators, as mentioned the other day.

But more interestingly, does this mean that in a suppressed and ailing population, a good year with improved numbers gives birds the confidence to display themselves? Does the fact that there are more birds on the moor mean that territories are more important and cocks are more ready to be seen in order to defend them?

Does this in turn mean that “cockiness” and pride is the more natural condition of healthy grouse populations – rather than secrecy and concealment? I had thought for some time that the prominence of grouse cocks on grouse moors was a product of the acquired confidence that comes with sound management and predator control. Because grouse moor management depends upon such a high level of human intervention, I interpreted that behaviour as being less natural, particularly by comparison to my own relatively unmanaged “wild” ground where the grouse were as secretive as ghosts.

In fact, it seems that cock grouse have an innate desire to be conspicuous, but they are only able to express this in areas where they are not going to be mown down by predators. The secrecy of the birds on the Chayne is in fact less natural than the “loud and proud” behaviour of birds in an environment of careful management and human intervention. The fact that my birds are willing to express confident behaviour after a productive summer in which their numbers have grown suggests that confidence is the innate “default” setting, and that it is suppressed by predation, rather than the opposite.

Unless I can use this opportunity to make some headway with the predators, it could well mean that the birds will have sunk back into secrecy by next spring, so there is all the more reason to make a big push while the ball is in my court.

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