I entered my hide before dawn and immediately heard the bubbling sound of the black grouse. As the sun peeped over the hill, I found myself within what appeared to be a theatre of birds. The flat, rushy pasture, surrounded by moorland, was alive with these impressively large, piratically plumaged birds that make the red grouse seem shy and retiring. The males, blackcocks, were everywhere, displaying and challenging each other, eager to impress the watching greyhens (females).
This theatre is known as a lek – the black grouse’s equivalent of speed dating, where both sexes gather to mate. It tends to take place in the same lekking ground, year after year, usually between the months of April and May.
To find a mate, the blackcock performs a display ritual – crouching, circling, spreading its lyre-shaped tail and inflating its bright red wattle – in the centre of a lekking ring, almost a stage, if you like. He couples this with bubbling call that is interspersed with a cat-like hiss, which can be heard from a surprising distance. The display attracts greyhens and also challenges other males. This can often lead to two rival birds squaring up, their white tails flared in fury. Feather-flying punch-ups follow, though these rarely cause serious damage.
When new greyhens arrive at the lek, the sparring males increase their activity, jumping into the air as if tethered by bungee ropes, then skulking low with wings outstretched. Finally, the female will choose the strongest, best dancing blackcock and the pair head off to mate with rather less show close by.
The boom years – and the bust
My first sighting of this amazing display was in the early 1970s, while I was working in the extensive forest of Eskdalemuir, in Dumfries and Galloway. In those days, leks were common and large; to see 40-50 birds displaying wasn’t rare. This is a huge contrast with the situation today, where a lek of double figures is considered noteworthy.
The main reason for the large numbers at Eskdalemuir and other areas of Scotland at the time was the extensive program of new forestry plantations. For the first eight to 10 years, these plantations provided ideal habitat for black grouse. The young trees offered shelter and there was plenty of food such as new heather, blaeberry and other plants, which were able to grow among the trees due to the absence of sheep from the fenced enclosures.
But since then, black grouse numbers have plummeted catastrophically, from 25,000 lekking males in 1990 in the UK to about 5,000 today, according to Scottish Natural Heritage. It’s a shocking statistic and one of the great tragedies of our uplands.
But what has caused this decline? There are a number of contributing factors, but both conservationists and gamekeepers agree that there is a problem with the plantations. Firstly, the old plantations of spruce have matured and become less habitable for the grouse. The canopy closes over, blocking out the heather, blaeberry and other plants that the grouse feed on. These vital food plants also support plentiful insect life, which the grouse chicks need to survive.
Secondly, very few new plantations are being planted on ‘fresh ground’ – ie, ground that has not been planted with trees before. Forestry policy today is that of clear felling once the trees reach maturity. A whole block of conifers is chopped down and the land is immediately replanted with trees. But the new growing forest appears much less attractive to the grouse as it has a reduced range of food plants contained within it. Fortunately, forestry policies have changed more recently, with efforts being made to create plantations containing pockets of trees of varying ages. This is both healthy for the trees and the grouse’s food plants, and may prove more hospitable for the birds.
However, forestry is just one habitat factor. The black grouse has always been a bird of the marginal land between moor, forest and the lower ground. And in times past, this poorer land was used to grow oats, the staple food of the working farm horse. The fields were harvested by cutting the oats, which were then tied into sheaves and stacked together in ‘stooks’. The black grouse liked to perch on the stooks in autumn, and feed on the stubble throughout the winter months. With the loss of working farm horses has come the loss of
the oat fields, and yet another food source for the black grouse.
In addition, such marginal land is now turned over to high-density grazing by sheep and cows. This has resulted in the overgrazing of the rough pastures, creating bare-ground with little shelter or food.
Maverick of the game bird world
People often ask me why, if the red grouse is doing so well, is its black cousin doing so badly? It’s because they live quite different lives. The red grouse lives and dies in a relatively small area of heather moor. Its requirements in terms of habitat and food are simple and, in many areas, the species is managed by gamekeepers for the shooting season.
The black grouse, however, is the maverick of the game bird world, here today and gone tomorrow, with a constant air of mystery about it. As we’ve seen, it lives in marginal, difficult to replicate habitats. It leks, and any disturbance of a lek by walkers or predators can lead to a disastrous breeding season for all birds involved. This especially occurs if the dominant male is killed.
Compared to its red relative, the black grouse has a more varied diet of blaeberry and buds of larch, birch, alder and heather (especially in winter). Cottongrass flower and the seeds of sedges and rushes are also eaten. But the chicks are more dependent on insects than the red grouse, and this can be a major problem if cold, wet springs suppress insect numbers.
The battle to save a precious species
So what can be done to help this fabulous bird? The RSPB, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) and the wider gamekeeping fraternity see the species as a high conservation priority and have many projects in place. For example, where populations have become small and isolated, the GWCT has translocated a few black grouse from their remaining strongholds to introduce new blood. The males tend to stay in a relatively small area while the hens travel to colonise new areas. This was desirable when there were many different populations but not now, when the few remaining populations are separated by many miles.
I believe that that protection of all lekking sites should be a top priority. This should include preventing human interference, as well as the control of foxes and stoats, both significant predators of black grouse. The numbers of goshawks are increasing, and it is felt by many gamekeepers that they are partly to blame, as they visit leks regularly. I believe this should be investigated.
I also believe that the species has a great deal of potential as a tourist attraction. When you see a lek, it is one of the strangest and most exciting wildlife spectacles in Britain – and the more people who get to see it (under conditions that do not disturb the birds) the more advocates the species will have.
Among upland folk, there is a passion kindled whenever the subject of the black grouse is brought up. And that makes me believe that the species is in good hands, hands that are driven by the knowledge that to lose this most iconic of game birds would be a tragedy for the British countryside.
Where to see the black grouse lek
Between the months of March and June (usually April and May) at dawn, the male black grouse gather together on a daily basis, occupying their own little piece of territory in a makeshift arena. Each male attempts to visually impress their female counterparts with an extravagant display of dancing and flashing white feathers, in an attempt to win a mate.
RSPB Cymru is organising free early morning guided walks to the lek site at Coed Llandegla Forest between the end of March and late May. The birds are usually viewed with telescopes and binoculars from the hide so as not to disturb them. The walks last around one hour and then head back to the visitor’s centre for breakfast. Booking is essential.
Cairngorms National Park, Highlands
Glenlivet Wildlife tours leave shortly before sunrise to visit a remote glen where there is easily accessible viewing of the black grouse’s courtship rituals. Other animals such as roe deer, mountain hares and red deer can also be seen here.
Upper Teesdale, County Durham
Natural England and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust run tours to view the black grouse lek, a short tour of habitats and breakfast at the Langdon Beck Hotel. Booking is essential.
Northern Experience Wildlife Tours runs safari days, during which you have a fair chance of seeing black grouse.
Eagle Brae, Inverness-shire
Guided tours take place in an all-terrain vehicle and get close to the birds without disturbing them. Eagle Brae has signed up to a government scheme to enhance the habitat of black grouse to ensure generations can come to enjoy this spectacular sight.