Of Cows and Grouse

Native breeds overwintered
Native breeds wintered on the margin

Going through my figures and findings from this year’s black grouse counts in Galloway, I see some interesting patterns and themes emerging. I will publish my findings in a bit more detail on here in the next week or so, if only because it is useful to see where the Galloway birds are in relation to one another, but in the meantime it is worth looking quickly at the subject of cattle.

There have been all kinds of studies by the GWCT on the value of summering cattle on moorland, and some of the statistics paint an extremely clear picture of what value cows can provide to black grouse and other wild game. Studies in the North of England have shown that the abundance of sawfly larvae is doubled when cows are grazing in the summer as opposed to sheep alone, and these larvae are a crucial part of the young English black grouse’s diet. Scottish black grouse tend to rely on other invertebrates associated with bog myrtle and old blaeberry, but the beneficial impact of having summer cattle on the ground is difficult to understate.

The reason why I mention this is that the best leks I have seen in Galloway so far this year have been held either in sight of or near to cattle. And these aren’t your typical upland “fair weather friends” like the standard continental x sucklers which appear from April and May onwards; these are native Galloways who have been on all winter. The correlation is so strong that I would almost go so far as to say that, from my observations, if there are cattle on the ground over the winter, there will be black grouse in the spring.

There are all kinds of problems with trying to winter cattle on the hill itself, and while native breeds can manage it without too much difficulty, there are pressure problems around ring feeders and access points which generally mean that, for the heather’s sake, you don’t want to keep the cows up the hill between October and April. As is traditionally the way, the cattle come down into the margins and inbye over the winter, and there they stay. During a wet winter, they can make a real mess on the boggy ground, and this seems to serve as an active boost to blackgame. I can’t put my finger on precisely why this is, beyond the stirring and enrichment of the soil, but wintered cattle on the margins seems to be as big a part of their success in this area as summer grazing is in the North of England.

Unfortunately, the few upland farms that nowadays stock cattle at all tend to take them away in lorries to the low ground in September or October. The Chayne keeps a good head of summer cattle on, but there are no cows over the winter; they all go down to the Solway shores. In my grandfather’s day, galloway cows stayed up there all year round, and their disappearance coincided with a significant slump in black grouse numbers.

Of course it is costly and time consuming to fiddle around with native hill breeds all winter, and the financial comparisons with some of the quick growing European crosses makes it financially ludicrous for most people to even consider it. The uplands are now suffering more generally from a lack of cows, in the form of rampant bracken expansion if nothing else, but the link between beef and grouse is worth exploring in more detail.



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