A Question of Blackgame

A blackcock at Langholm, where grouse management has bucked a regional trend and black grouse numbers have increased.
A blackcock at Langholm

One of the strangest arguments to emerge from the various anti-grouse shooting campaigns is that blackgame are being persecuted on driven grouse moors and that a ban on driven grouse shooting would result in a massive upsurge in blackgame numbers. From a scientific community so devoted to “evidence-led” policy, it is quite startling to see this idea being pedaled without any empirical justification whatsoever, and it seems to stem entirely from a half-baked, speculative “reckon”.

In reality, we have an appalling amount of evidence to suggest that blackgame collapse when traditional upland management is removed. Critics of grouse moors imagine that, without management, heather would gradually transform into species-rich scrub woodland where nature could reach an equilibrium and predator control would become redundant. In this pseudo-scandinavian utopia, red grouse would become willow ptarmigan again and start feeding in the trees, and legions of blackgame would swarm over the hills.

Sadly, we have a century of case studies and many hundreds of thousands of hectares of demonstration sites in the West Country, Wales and Western Scotland to show that the pressures facing moorland without grouse as a management incentive lead (almost invariably) to overgrazing, undergrazing, commercial afforestation, bracken expansion and/or the loss of the moorland margins. There are mountains of evidence to suggest that things will go downhill for blackgame without moorland management for driven red grouse, and not even one single British case study to suggest that things will get better. In fact, the current distribution of blackgame in England is so closely bound to driven grouse moors that attempting to disentangle one from the other could be nationally fatal.

I quite often look through Twitter for the latest pictures posted of blackgame. Many of the photographs come from the North Pennines, particularly in Teesdale and around Langdon Beck. This is no surprise; the place is loaded with them; but it is surprising how many of the photographers and birders enjoy their visit to Co. Durham, then come home and circulate anti-grouse shooting materials on their Twitter and social media profiles. If the gamekeepers of Teesdale and Weardale were handed their P45s, blackgame numbers would go out like a light. I would bet every last penny I have on it, but there is a strange disconnect between seeing the value of blackgame and yet failing to understand why they are there.

During the course of the “debate” over grouse shooting, some hugely complex issues have been distorted into idiotic and over-simplified half-truths which catch the eye and inflame the social conscience. There are some things that need to change about the “industry” (if we must use that word), but it would be devastating to lose the tremendous quantity of good work that goes on behind the scenes in a single ham-fisted attempt to hurt the “bad guys”.

I got into my line of work after falling in love with blackgame during a chance encounter in the Galloway hills. The only places I could reliably see more of them were on grouse moors, and I spent hours, days and weeks with gamekeepers, learning about the birds and their habitat. I’ve chosen this work, and I’m not fond of following a “party line”. If I didn’t feel utterly certain that blackgame were well served by grouse moor management, I would be the first to say it.


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