There were black grouse feathers in the grass the morning as I checked the cattle, and it’s hard to stomach that kind of loss. But with a few hours to reflect on the discovery, I’ve reached a kind of steady equilibrium.
For a start, the feathers had been shed for some time. They’d come from a young bird before it had fully fledged into early adult plumage. You don’t often see these adolescent feathers, which enable youngsters to flutter and do little more. Most of them are moulted out by the autumn, but I took some good photos of captive-reared birds at this stage (above) and it was useful to cross-check the feathers I found against these pictures.
I mainly found tail feathers (which are flimsy and barred) and feathers from the upper back between the wings. These photographs came in handy when I tried to guess time of death. I’d say that the remains I found originated from a bird between ten and twelve weeks old – so assuming that it hatched as normal around June 15th, it met its maker in the middle of August.
You can rarely be certain when it comes to a cause of death, but a fox had certainly been part of the party – the quills were all bitten through. Young black grouse often just turn their toes up and die for a range of complex reasons, and it’s not fair to immediately point the finger. The bird might have died and been picked up post mortem by a fox, and I have no real evidence to contradict that narrative. If it was killed by a predator, birds this size and over are generally only vulnerable to foxes and goshawks. Goshawks usually kill hardest in the winter, so I’d say by law of averages that if this bird was killed, it fell foul of a fox.
And I can settle with a degree of equilibrium because this kind of predation is par for the course. Young birds are weak and daft, and almost every other species in the world attempts to produce more than it requires to survive. Call it attrition, and while we sorely need more black grouse on the ground in Galloway, the real problem comes later in the autumn and the earliest days of spring. That’s when our young birds are decimated, and high hopes fall apart. Predation (exacerbated by poor winter feeding and cover) simply drives them into the ground.
I have been quite pleased with brood productivity this year, and counts have revealed some nice, well-grown broods of four, five and six. That’s a solid summer, but I’m not sure that productivity is our problem here in Galloway. We usually have good broods, and I often swing into September on a high. But those birds do not survive the winter, and they rarely live long enough to breed. Losing the odd youngster in August is normal. Losing your entire year’s new breeding stock every winter is not.
It’s a general pattern that most of our displaying blackcock are old or very mature in May. If they can get through their first winter, black grouse often live long and lavishly. I once knew a cock that lived for seven years. That’s quite an innings, but for all that he fathered many offspring during that time, he hung around on his own and he never saw any of his sons come through to join him at the lek. Of thirty-ish blackcock I saw this spring between Galloway and Ayrshire, only four were in their first year. You could say that young birds can be harder to find, but I’ve never seen much evidence to support this and I don’t think it’s a complete explanation anyway. Like curlews and so many other declining species, black grouse dwindle because they cannot retain the numbers they need to stand still. And like curlews, it’s easy to be gulled by the illusion of productive success. In population terms, it’s crucial to realise that unless young birds go all the way through the winter and produce young of their own in the following spring, they might as well have died in the egg.
I often get snipped for being gloomy. I won’t lose my rag over the death of a single poult in August because while I think that’s a pity, the problem clearly lies elsewhere. Reading back through old blog articles, I realise that ten years ago, I forecast the complete extinction of black grouse in Galloway within a decade. That hasn’t happened, and I was wrong. Perhaps that reflects badly on me, but I’m not sure there’s much to trumpet in my error. The number of black grouse at leks I count have declined by 80% and the birds have disappeared from six parishes where I knew them then. If you look at a map of their current distribution, it’s confined to a few feeble pockets, often with miles between them. Ten years ago, we needed a game changer; some radical new approach which placed a real value on these birds and allowed them to push back against the pressures which are crushing them. We haven’t had it, and when I look to the headlines and the local press, the only thing coming is more of the same. If I feel daft for my gloominess, it’s only because I spoke too soon.