Rifling through some old papers in the process of moving house, I was pleased to find a newspaper cutting from 2013 which contained a letter from Chris Land, who is a frequent commenter on this blog and has provided great support and help over the years. Chris ran black grouse surveys for the Southern Uplands Partnership in the Borders several years ago and had an excellent idea of how things looked at the real coal face of decline, away from the North Pennines and Perthshire. Rather than scan the copy in, I’ve typed it out below:
Sir – It was heartening to hear of the tree-planting initiative for black grouse by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (report, June 24).
However, woodlands are not the primary habitat of the species, despite much wishful thinking.
Focusing conservation efforts on woodlands will not benefit black grouse, whose main cause of decline is the loss of moorland habitats – ironically due to tree planting, predation and poor ground cover caused by over-grazing.
After 60 years of woodland creation in the Southern Uplands, black grouse number around 200 lekking males, and are now almost entirely to be found on a few grouse moors.
Urgent action to restore lost moorlands is required in this area.
I love this letter – it strikes the nail precisely upon the head. There are powerful vested interests in forestry, and many believe that the mass production of commercial softwood will soon become “the powerhouse of the Scottish rural economy”. Black grouse have been seized upon as a justification to create new woodlands, and the birds have been repackaged as a “woodland” or a “forest” bird in order to bolster an image of eco-forestry.
The reality is that while woodland can contribute towards a healthy blend of habitats, the birds are fundamentally based on a blend of well-managed moorland and farmland. Dumfries and Galloway has lost two thirds of its heather moorland and hill country to forestry since the Second World War. If it were as simple as “more trees = more black grouse”, we’d be drowning in birds and the foresters would be stamping on their nests to keep their numbers down as they did in the 1960s and 70s.
Studies which link black grouse to woodland are often carried over from Scandinavia, and much is lost in translation. Commercial forestry in Galloway has a totally different ecological dynamic to Swedish woodlands, and history shows that British birds (which are a separate race) prosper in much more open habitats. Where studies have identified links between black grouse and woodland in this country, the evidence has focussed on the complex knock-on effects which are associated with planting – factors like a removal of grazing pressure. Most studies agree that even native woodland loses its black grouse mojo after a few years without management, and this is perfectly borne out by the case of Border Forest Trust’s flagship property at Carrifran, where black grouse numbers initially rose after planting before slumping into a wholesale collapse. By the by, it is worth noting that a senior BFT figure believes that the declines which have taken place on his watch are driven by diseases contracted from red grouse. Which is a little nutty.
A strategic plan to save black grouse in Southern Scotland was launched last year, and the project leaders gathered round at the Scottish Game Fair to pat one another on the back and pose for photographs. Many of these folk are old hands when it comes to black grouse conservation. Their names (or their respective organisations) are found on many failed attempts to halt and reverse decline in black grouse over the past twenty years. But while I tried not to be cynical about this, it’s hard to see revolutionary change taking place a year later.
If we are serious about preserving black grouse for future generations, we need to recognise the value of moorland management and engage with it. Gingerly cutting small areas of heather every now and again according to the availability of HLF money does not constitute meaningful engagement. We need to re-integrate farming interests onto the hills, explore progressive heather cutting patterns to protect and improve vegetation and (whisper it) light some fires. Managed properly and with deer control, we would soon have all the natural birch and willow scrub black grouse could ever need without wasting money on planting it.
We also need to grasp the nettle on predator control and listen to what the science is telling us about how predators are linked to forestry plantations. We can have massive softwood plantations, but we MUST mitigate the damage they cause by employing people to kill foxes and trap crows. Private forestry’s refusal to pull its own weight with predator control is driving declines into overdrive, and the half-hearted secrecy of RSPB and FCS predator control would be hilarious if it wasn’t so devastating.
If we are going to keep upland farms in business after Brexit, we must pay them to create and maintain the kind of brood rearing habitats which allow black grouse to reproduce. The current political climate may be alarming for those of us who love unprofitable hill ground, but it’s also a great opportunity to clean out many of the big fat-cats who simply sit on their subsidies and have contributed towards the current impasse.
But sadly, I see little appetite to bring these changes together and no credible body with the drive, courage or resources to make them happen. Thousands of acres of suitable (if perhaps currently degraded or “sub-optimal”) habitat will be destroyed by forestry in the next few years as Brexit bites. We have perhaps one last opportunity to rescue black grouse from what may be the final brink in Southern Scotland. With a heavy heart, I predict that we just won’t take it.