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Friday, August 20, 1999 Published at 13:23 GMT 14:23 UK


Black grouse numbers grow

Chicks face many hazards

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

There is new hope for a striking bird which has been in serious decline across the United Kingdom for most of this century.

Richard Wells reports from upper Teesdale
The bird, the black grouse, used to be widespread across Britain. Thirty years ago, it could still be found on Exmoor and Dartmoor. Now, though, it is restricted to parts of Wales, northern England and Scotland.

[ image: Conservationists have looked to improve the natural habitat]
Conservationists have looked to improve the natural habitat
Ornithologists estimated in 1996 that there were fewer than 7,000 adult male birds left, a decline mirrored across the species' European range.

But in upper Teesdale, in the north Pennines, the news is better. The numbers of black grouse there have increased by a third in just three years.

The recovery has been achieved by co-operation between local people and several conservation groups, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and English Nature.

Control of predators

On 25 farms and estates, sheep grazing has been restricted, heather moorland regenerated, and predators strictly controlled. Seeds and insects which the growing chicks need have been encouraged.

Richard Wells talks to conservationists Kevin Brays and David Baines
The scheme, which depends on the support of farmers and gamekeepers, is due to end soon. But it has worked so well that it is being extended for two more years, and other areas are being encouraged to copy it.

To pay for the further work, the RSPB wants the UK Government to channel money away from grants that pay farmers for increased production into schemes that encourage them to protect the environment. There are also demands for it to legislate in the next session of Parliament to give better protection to endangered species and habitats.

The threats to the black grouse include:

  • the effect on vegetation of rising sheep numbers, up from 25.5 million in 1970 to more than 40 m in 1993
  • a doubling in the Scottish highlands of the numbers of red deer between 1961 and 1986
  • clearing of moorland to create pasture
  • intensive commercial afforestation
  • fences to control deer: when the birds fly into them at high speed they are often killed
  • poor weather in early summer, which can damage the chicks' survival chances
  • predation by foxes, crows and other wildlife.

The black grouse is one of only three breeding species in the UK (the others are the capercaillie and the ruff) to take part in a strange display ritual called the lek. Leks usually involve five to 10 male birds, but may number up to 30.

The birds crouch low and fluff up their white undertail coverts, raise their lyre-shaped tails, inflate their necks and jump in the air, making a soft, bubbling call.

The dominant males in a lek manage to mate most often with the visiting hens.

[ image: The males strut their stuff]
The males strut their stuff

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