It was interesting to attend the launch of the plan to conserve black grouse in Southern Scotland at the Scottish Game Fair on Friday. All the big-wigs were there, and the moment provided everyone with some really good photo opportunities and a chance to slap backs. Perhaps I’m getting cynical in my old age, but these congratulations were slightly premature. The plan is certainly a good one, but the difficulties implicit in conserving black grouse mean that the job is far from done (or even begun). I can’t claim credit for the quote, but I remember overhearing a comment following the launch of a particularly weighty Biodiversity Action Plan several years ago to the effect that “if black grouse could eat piles of paper, we’d have fixed all their problems years ago”.
Having read it through, the plan makes perfect sense and I wish it every success. I’m slightly concerned that the momentum and early progress will all head to the East of the Southern Uplands, where existing grouse interests and predator control levels make progress most realistic. It would be lovely to see blackgame in the Lammermuirs, and it would be a PR coup for the sporting estates if they could restore the fortunes of a bird that is so universally admired, but it is a long road to Duns from where I’m sitting, with several thousand foxes on the way.
The project also aims to expand the population between Newcastleton and Tweedsmuir seems like a shakier prospect since the departure of gamekeepers at Langholm (and the almost immediate impact on black grouse numbers there), but this will be an opportunity for the foresters to prove their mettle, since much of this ground is under plantation.
Many at Forestry Commission Scotland are making some great progress, but some of the private forestry companies are disturbingly wooly-headed about predator control, and stalkers lamping deer at night time are explicitly forbidden to shoot foxes on some properties in this key area for black grouse. From my perspective, by the time you have paid for a man and a vehicle to be out at night time shooting deer, the additional cost of plugging a fox is neither here nor there, even if it is only on an opportunity basis. The benefits might soon rack up, although low intensity fox-sniping rarely produces a sustainable increase in black grouse. In such half-hearted cases where a toe has been gingerly dipped in the water, some have found it easy to write off predator control as fundamentally ineffective. I’ve even heard some foresters shake their heads at the mention of predator control, explaining that “it didn’t make much of a difference when we tried it”, which means “we shot a fox and two crows in January”.
In recent years, sporting interests in Scotland have had to respond to accusations of single-mindedness and the lack of a broad and balanced approach to various land uses. To me, several big-name foresters lag far behind on multi-functional land use (what a horrible expression), focussing obsessively on timber production and issuing antsy press-releases complaining that nobody wants to play with them. In reality, they could do a huge amount more in terms of practical conservation, and where they do carry out predator control, they could take some of the burden off the sporting community by going public about it, rather than conducting that legitimate, crucial business in the shade of secrecy.
Further West still, there is a real chance to make progress in the Galloway Forest Park as predator control picks up and forest rangers (NB not “gamekeepers”) have been trapping crows, lamping foxes and visiting earths. To me, this project is an opportunity to throw the kitchen sink at these birds and really make something of them. I believe that the will is there on the Forester’s part, but expanding the range of black grouse South to Cairnsmore and East towards the Chayne will require a total overhaul of current thinking, including a binding and financially viable incentive to carry out predator control against a tide of local opinion which now accepts the status quo of crows and foxes. More fundamentally, we need to recognise the value of managing the open ground and providing quality moorland habitat, rather than submitting to the constant temptation to plant trees and speak of black grouse as a woodland bird.
Good luck to the plan, and good luck to the birds, which have declined in Southern Scotland more than almost anywhere else. A century ago, Nithsdale and Galloway were seen as the best place in Europe to see and shoot black grouse. The declines have bitten hardest here because we had furthest to fall. I look forward to seeing how the work progresses, and I wish them the best of success.