Struggling With Science

A local lad

A local lad

Having spent the past few days trudging through some pretty dry scientific material about grouse nutrition and territory size for an ongoing Heather Trust project, I bumped into an unassuming paper last night called “phylogeography and subspecies status of black grouse”.

The way science is currently being thrown around as a weapon of combat in modern conservation makes me take much of it with a pinch of salt. Scientists squabble about how their science is “better” than their opponents, and anything which has not been empirically proven one way or another is treated as little more than anecdotal dirt. Even when facts and figures are forthcoming, their interpretation is one of the great “grey” art forms. Just look at the Joint Raptor Study at Langholm in the 1990s. Thousands of pounds of taxpayer’s money went into funding that piece of research, and yet even fifteen years later there is no consensus as to what it actually taught us. The figures generated by the current Langholm Moor project (where and if they are available at all) are held to mean all kinds of different things by the various interested parties.

Nobody would deny that science is the vital framework for conservation, but a report with a title which includes the word “phylogeography” probably does not have much to communicate to the man on the ground. Aside from anything, so much of the science around moorland gamebirds appears to have been written by people who have forgotten why they were ever interested in the subject in the first place, and so much of it is woefully hard going. Half way through the abstract, I encountered expressions like “bell-shaped mismatch distribution” and “star-shaped phylogeny”, both of which represented an apparently conscious attempt to repel even the most determined layman reader. But I persevered.

I’m not going to say that I enjoyed reading the report, and I would not suggest that any of my readers should even try (although it is HERE for a very, very rainy day). In essence, the thrust of phylogeography is “talking about where the different kinds of things are”, and the report discusses the fact that black grouse have a number of subspecies (the precise number is up for discussion), and tries to work out where the different subspecies are and how they have ended up there.

We have our own subspecies of black grouse in Britain (tetrao tetrix britannicus), and several other blends and mixtures of genetics and bloodlines cover the birds which run in a relatively unbroken spread from the Alps to North Korea. I didn’t know that there were black grouse in North Korea, but given that they are doing well in China, it makes sense. If nothing else, it demonstrates the flexibility of the species to think that it can live over such a huge area. We now feel very precious about our black grouse in this country, making them out to be inherently weak and unable to look after themselves. When you look at the birds in an international context, you see that it is only because we have systematically beaten black grouse out of every habitat requirement they depended upon in this country. So targeted and wholesale has our destruction of their habitat been that an intergalactic observer could easily be fooled into believing that we have made these changes specifically to destroy this species. Given half a chance and with a fair wind, black grouse numbers boom, as is the case from Kyrgyzstan to Mongolia.

I must look into the kind of habitat that black grouse occupy in the Far East, because if nothing else, I feel sure that it does not look like the Chayne.

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