Happy Days

A blackcock poult beside a pheasant at Raby.
A blackcock poult beside a pheasant at Raby.

Perhaps I am over-emphasising the extraordinary crop of young black grouse which has materialised in Galloway over the past few weeks, but for an obsessive enthusiast who has spent six years chasing rumours and vague sightings, this sudden avalanche of birds is almost accompanied by choral singing, beams of sunshine and a trumpet fanfare. The broods on the Chayne are fit and strong, and although I haven’t seen them in a few days, I find fistfuls of their juvenile feathers moulted out on the track where the powdery earth is perfect for dust bathing. I painstakingly check each shaft for signs of predation, but so far all have been dropped fair and square.

A friend rang this morning to tell me that he had found a large brood over towards Dalry; no more than ten birds with a grown cock amongst them. On the other side of the Ken, two small broods were phoned in by a pal on Friday who had put them up beneath the wheels of his quad bike, and the estate bordering the Chayne continues to show young birds in all stages of development, some little squeakers and others grave and well feathered. These birds have performed a staggering turnaround, and the change is nothing short of extraordinary.

The last, miserable dregs were wallowing on the brink during the wet summer of 2012, but life was blown into these embers during 2013. This life has exploded after a second long, hot summer, and I now head up to the Chayne expecting to see birds, rather than expecting not to. Previously, weeks would go by without seeing blackgame – now they are present on most walks, and if I don’t find them, the dog does.

As much as the weather has been instrumental, I flatter myself with the thought that I have played a part. One brood is using the wood which I have painstakingly redesigned, and I have stuck to my guns in terms of predator control. A boom year for rabbits has meant that stoats walk abroad in stunning abundance, and my trap lines have been extremely active over the past month.

It is difficult to quantify the fruit of my labours, but it is very unlikely that my sweat and tears have not resulted in a poult or two more than there otherwise would have been. I say this in very reserved terms, because I have already seen the first press releases from the RSPB and their fellows which seek to claim the credit for this phenomenal boom. An article from Geltsdale claimed that black grouse had had their best year “ever” in 2014 (*surely “since records began”? I hear black grouse did very well in 1347), and while mention was made of the sunshine, success was also attributed to management work undertaken by the charity. Inevitably, little mention was made of the two key drivers of black grouse productivity at Geltsdale: Knarsdale and Croglin, the shooting neighbours.

The last thing I want to do is denigrate this success – it is fantastic that black grouse are doing well across the country, but they are doing as well on unkeepered, unmanaged forestry ground as they are on the Chayne as they are at Geltsdale. Everywhere is booming, but we should not be under any illusions that we have somehow “cracked” the problem of black grouse decline. Without predator control, a huge number of these poults will never live to lek in 2015, and a wet summer next year will surely set the clock back to zero again.

Govan and Ibrox could have produced black grouse poults given the weather we’ve had in 2013 and 2014, and the biggest challenge is keeping enough birds alive so that they can weather a wet summer when it comes and then build again on the progress when the sun shines.

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