Open Hills

Black in the old days
Black in the old days

Interesting to be sent this photograph by a friend which was taken from Seton Gordon’s 1938 book Wild Birds in Britain – The picture appears to have been taken on Deeside where the birds today remain in some considerable quantity, but while the blackcock themselves are pretty stirring, more notable is the countryside they are in. Lek sites vary across the country and blackgame usually favour somewhere with a bit of short grass or heather to display upon, but judging by the backdrop to the photograph, there is little in the way of decent cover as far as the eye can see. With the exception of the odd scots pine here and there, the hills are just open moorland.

And this within hours of an appeal from the Great Trossachs Forest for support for funding to plant the hills of Stirlingshire with trees because “it’ll be great for black grouse”. The birds are listed along with red squirrels as “forest wildlife” on the GTF website, even though during the several years I spent exploring Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park as a student I never saw a single bird in what I would describe as “forest”.

As has been discussed at length on this blog before, the relationship between black grouse and woodland is not straightforward and there are many factors which have changed over the years. Forest publicity paints a picture of sad, teary-eyed black grouse longing for a wood to spend time in, whereas the British sub-species of black grouse has shown that it is uniquely capable of prospering without a single tree provided that farming and moorland management are properly integrated. The only reason they planted a few trees in the North Pennines recently was as an insurance against harsh winters. In many cases, that is all they ever need.

In some areas, woodland is part of grouse habitat, but it is repeatedly sold as the “one-stop habitat-shop” panacea for every black grouse predicament. Some NGOs and conservation bodies seem to think that if they say “black grouse live in the woods” often enough, it will somehow become true, and too many people buy this nonsense without ever really questioning it.

Unfortunately, it ticks so many environmental boxes to be seen to be planting trees that it is easy to forget the sheer numbers of black grouse which roamed Scotland in the days when the countryside was managed as it appears in Seton Gordon’s photograph – with hardly a tree in sight. If the GFT needed a “poster-bird” to buoy its conservation drive, then it could have looked no further than the capercaillie which were said to inhabit the islands in Loch Lomond. Unfortunately, owing to a scandalous and woeful mishandling of that situation, a recent press release effectively announced that the National Park has been unwilling to make the changes necessary to conserve those birds, and they are now effectively defunct.

I am in no way “anti-tree”; I am simply pro-moorland. The Great Trossachs Forest is probably a fine project and all kinds of species will benefit from the coming of the trees, but I would be stunned if black grouse was one of them.


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