Regular readers of this blog will understand my wholesale antipathy to woodland and particularly sitka spruce trees when it comes to black grouse conservation. I have ranted and railed against trees for several years, blaming them (quite rightly) for the loss and fragmentation of large areas of heather moorland across the Southern Uplands. I still maintain that trees have caused a huge amount of damage and that they should never be blindly wheeled out as a “fix-all” for black grouse in all situations, but seeing an extraordinary lek in South Ayrshire on Friday and Saturday mornings has allowed me to see these birds in a woodland context. I can’t afford to be close-minded on this subject, and while the lek challenged a lot of my preconceptions, I think that it broadened my mind rather than changed it.
The commercial woodland in this area is made up of a mixture of lodgepole and sitka spruce, and the lek I saw could hardly have been more neatly built in to the “forest edge”. A series of conifer blocks come to a mathematically precise end one hundred yards above the water of a large loch, leaving a long strip of rank heather and rowan trees between the loch and the forest. This strip is approximately five hundred yards long and is broken at one point by a dozen old granny scots pines which run from the forest almost down into the water. The loch is very narrow here, and a hundred yards of peaty water divide one shore from the other, where the heather tumbles down from a vast open hillside to the East. In this environment, I saw one of the strangest leks I have ever seen.
My attention was first drawn by a single cock lekking on the open hillside above the bothy, and I headed up in the half darkness to get a closer look. Sitting with my thermos in the frost, he suddenly rose up with a greyhen in the van and flew half a mile down to the strip between the forest and the loch. As he glided over them, individual blackcock rose up in a frenzy of excitement from the rank heather, often hundreds of yards apart. I returned to get the car for a closer look, and found the strip and all the ground around it infested with blackcock calling invisibly within the deep heather. One cock was on the hill on other side of the loch, three hundred yards away, while another lounged around in a larch tree and looked down scornfully with his tail up.
As I drove along the track which ran parallel to the loch’s shore, I was reminded of driving through a forest in the Rift Valley in Tanzania. The great old granny pines were literally festooned with greyhens, and blackcock flew up to join them, tumbling through the needles like clumsy black and white colobus monkeys. A flat-topped pine tree was the stage for a mini-lek, where two blackcock fought each other with tremendous noise and vigour twenty feet off the ground. The greyhens glided between the trees, and a couple settled in the willows above the car to feed. With every movement of greyhens, the entire lek would shift and revolve as if the birds were all taking turns in each spot. Four birds flew across the loch to form a splinter group, then ten minutes later returned to different locations all along the near banks, some several hundred yards away. During the course of half an hour, the whole carnival rolled along the shore, and even the greyhens who pretended not to be interested soon flew off to catch up when they felt that the action was getting too far away. And when they reached their furthest point, they started to come back again.
Down in the deep heather and separated by considerable distances, there was no way that the blackcock could see each other in order to interact. On the few occasions when they did happen to bump into each other (usually as they crossed the tracks), they fell to voiceless and surprisingly violent conflict which sounded at times like a child beating the bottom of a plastic bucket. These earnest battles were as serious as any I have seen on an open lek site, but all the loser had to do was move six feet off the track and he would be invisible again. In this environment, it was very difficult for specific conflicts to be resolved or sustained. It was impossible to stage the awesome “massed pipes and drums” of the open hill, so the alternative was strange and intriguing.
It was obvious that the greyhens preferred the high points so that they could keep track on the cocks, since direct comparison was impossible from ground level. And yet all this confusion was taking place with sight of half a dozen areas of open ground which would have been perfect for a communal lek in any other circumstance. They were choosing to display in such an awkward spot, and the rolling, frenetic nature of the display flew in the face of almost every other lek I have seen. These birds were like Scandinavians, and while they clearly spend a lot of time on the open hill, they had chosen this cramped, awkward corner to perform a lek that was so obscure and overcrowded that it seemed perverse. All the while, the liquid, slurring phrase of countless willow warblers grew into an incessant, almost heady backdrop.
I stand by my opinion that commercial woodland is one of the great evils in black grouse conservation, and as above, I am constantly appalled by the “if you want black grouse, plant trees” mentality which runs as a constant theme through NGO advice. However (and it is a big however), these birds have clearly adapted to life in the trees. They know how to use them and they appear to choose open woodland over open moorland for their displays. This is not a huge population of birds (perhaps a dozen in all), but they are well linked in to other populations and are not singletons or “dregs” as you might see elsewhere in Galloway. There is a habitat and a (very important) predator control story here which I will come to in due course, but in terms of literal observation, I think that these two mornings watching this lek has taught me more than any of the dozens of others I have seen this year.