Monday, 20 March 2017



THE spotlight fell on larger birds at this month’s BTO regional conference held at York University.

The first presentation came from former Harrogate man Phil Warren who has spent the past 18 years researching moorland species.

His special expertise is with black grouse, and he is now pioneering initiatives by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust to expand its range in northern England.

The bird has been having a bad time of it for at least the past 25 years - probably much longer.

In 1990, the UK population was reckoned to number some 25,000 males, but, by the last count in 2005, this had fallen to 5,078.

“That’s a staggering and depressing decline,” said Phil.

In Northumberland’s Kielder Forest, the birds were once - in the years before the conifer saplings became established - so common as to be regarded by some as a “pest”.

But once the canopy formed, the habitat changed and the bird  has now almost been lost as a breeder.  

On the plus side - at least in parts of North Yorkshire - the species has held up.

Continued Phil: “If you’re driving through the Pennines, there is a good chance that any black dots you see are more likely to be black grouse than carrion crows.”

The species is famous for the springtime lekking displays of the males. Leks can consist of just a single bird up to 36, but the typical number is six.

In Scandinavia, leks sometimes occur on frozen lakes.

In the UK, the black grouse retains its status as a “game bird”, despite is fragile population, but there is voluntarily moratorium on shooting by estate owners.

In instances, where individual females (grey hens) - which are not dissimilar from their red grouse counterparts - are shot, a fine is imposed, with the money channelled into conservation work.

 A challenge for Phil and colleagues is that, though survival rates for young birds are “good”, breeding productivity overall is low, with an average of just 1.3 chicks per nest. 

The trust is keen to encourage the spread of scrubby woodland, a favoured habitat, not least because it provides a roosting habitat.   

There is also need to encourage sawflies because the larvae are an essential part of the chicks’ diet.

Because of unfavourable habitat or other pressures, there is little prospect of the species being able to extend its Pennine population to the immediate north, east or west, so Phil and colleagues have been focusing on potential areas in parts of the Yorkshire Dales.

“There are indications that translocation may be a useful tool,”continued Phil.

One problem is that, though females disperse after breeding, males are sedentary and return to the same lekking sites of their forebears.

The first translocation exercises failed because the males involved simply returned.

The lesson that has emerged is that project birds - they are caught, after dark, by lamping - need to be transferred  at least 15km away to discourage any attempts to return.

Sites north-west of Hawes and in Upper Nidderdale have been identified as potentially worthwhile as part of range extension efforts.

In response to a question about predator control, Phil said that stoats, weasels and rats were the principle targets.

What about harriers?

“Birds of prey are protected,” he replied.

More information about  the black grouse and efforts to extend its population are featured on the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s website: 

Delegates at the BTO regional conference held at York University on March 18
NEXT: Jude Lane on gannets

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