Black Grouse Conservation in Southern Scotland

A christmas scene
A festive scene

Interesting to see the new “black grouse conservation in Southern Scotland” report published by SNH during the course of last week. This has been in the works for some time, and if nothing else the document serves as a useful position statement for an area of the country that seldom attracts much in the way of black grouse interest.

There will not be much in the report to surprise anyone who has followed the black grouse story over the past decade, and while I wish the project every success, I can’t help feeling fractionally pessimistic about the recommendations.

Many of the proposed measures depend upon co-operation with a range of “stakeholders” and landowners, and it is very easy to see any resources for this project pumped straight into public bodies and NGOs – The pattern of black grouse conservation in Galloway over the past decade has seen huge amounts of money handed to the RSPB and FCS (for very little gain) while birds on private land continue to dwindle and fall silent.

The money goes to these areas less because of their strategic significance and more because there are established links between the people with the money and the people who take it. Private land is at a fundamental disadvantage in the race for funding because much of it is not even surveyed for black grouse leks. By the by, this has an immediate and worrying side-effect – a neighbour approached the SAC for advice on funding for black grouse conservation but was turned down because he could not prove that there were any leks within a set radius of his farm. He had seen the birds, his family had seen them and I had even photographed them, but what did we know, we simple yokels? We were probably looking at crows. But this is part of a wider schism between landowners and conservationists that I have written about before.

As if to emphasise the past imbalance of interest and investment, the “core area” identified by the report lies more or less within a set area overseen by either FCS, RSPB or publicly subsidised woodland creation bodies.

It is easy to pump funding into recognised conservation bodies with deft and well-trained funding departments, and the general public is satisfied by the audit trail, but the key to this project’s success will be a wider engagement with private landowners. This is an altogether more complicated task, and goes way beyond press releases and big cheques.

Dumfries and Galloway has a strong tradition of grouse and moorland management, but this has fallen by the wayside since the eighties and the final waves of afforestation in the uplands. However, the rural community harbours a very close interest in shooting, and there is still a fond memory of wild game. While our management skills are rusty, we still have the desire to get stuck into our moorland again. Some of the best places to see black grouse (within and outwith the “core area”) in Galloway are managed by private landowners who support their keepers and back them to burn heather and control foxes in the hills. More often than not, these keepers are paid by their ability to show pheasants, and their interest in the hills falls more under the title of “hobby” – but these people could be instrumental in holding on to the few birds we still have – it would be impossible to overstate their value.

It is not straightforward, but the future of the black grouse in Galloway depends upon harnessing local landowners, tenants and syndicates and making sure that these people have the skills, equipment and backing to do the crucial work that this report identifies – surely it is far better to get people doing the job themselves than by breathing temporary life into projects with drip-fed funding tranches?

After all, this is not just about black grouse but an entire upland ecosystem that is essentially flatlining. A few months ago, SNH published a report on the distribution of golden eagles in the Southern Uplands. I responded to this report with the suggestion that proper upland management would restore the prey species and the eagles in turn. In the same way, I have written about mountain hares and hen harriers in Galloway. The culture of conservation is such that we tend to think about single species, but the South of Scotland always seems to dance around the same fundamental issue – that after decades of holding a well-deserved reputation as the place to go for bird watchers and sportsmen, the hills are now falling silent. I absolutely commend the idea that we should all be working closer together, but true collaboration is harder and harder to find.

We bungle this at our peril.

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