Blackgrouse are one of the UK?s most threatened game species ? their existence hangs by a thread in parts of northern England. It is their precarious situation that prompted the recent launch of a new strategy document created by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) and agreed by a partnership between the GWCT, RSPB and other members of the English Black Grouse Biodiversity Action Plan (EBAP) Group.

No sooner was the blackgrouse plan launched, however, than it was overtaken by events. The original text recommended immediate conservation measures to safeguard the remaining blackgrouse in north Northumberland. Unfortunately, researchers from the GWCT and Northumberland National Park this spring failed to find any male blackgrouse on the Ministry of Defence?s 23,000ha Otterburn Training Area, despite the fact that this was once the stronghold for the birds in north Northumberland, supporting 68 males in 2002.

This is a particularly poignant reminder that this species? future hangs in the balance. This rapid demise has happened despite the MoD being an active and founding partner in the Black Grouse Recovery Project, which started in 1996, thus ensuring that they had the best available advice. In the end, despite intensive habitat management for the species by the MoD, which encouraged tenant farmers to enter Government funded agri-environment schemes to improve moorland habitats, as well as the restructuring of commercial forests and planting native woodlands, it was not enough to prevent a once-healthy population of blackgrouse being lost.

So with good habitat, what was missing? Our eight-year Upland Predation Experiment at Otterburn demonstrated that breeding success of ground-nesting birds, including waders and grouse, was two to three times higher when predators such as foxes and crows were routinely controlled. Conversely, numbers declined when predators were not controlled. Blackgrouse fitted into the general pattern and breeding success was higher than on other monitoring sites in northern England. When the experiment ended in 2008, defence budget cuts meant that predator control was discontinued. Since then, waders and gamebirds alike have spun into serious decline.

A lack of funding

Predicting extinctions, GWCT scientists called for routine predator control to be funded as part of Higher Level Scheme agri-environment payments. Sadly, despite meetings with Natural England and Defence Estates to discuss the art of the possible, funding for predator management alongside that for habitats, was not forthcoming. Ironically, the funding for predator control is available in Scotland and Wales under stewardship schemes to protect vulnerable species such as capercaillie and blackgrouse, but not in England. As a result, despite habitat improvements for blackgrouse, the flagship species for the Otterburn area has seemingly gone, with others such as grey partridge, golden plover and lapwing in close pursuit.

Controlling predators is an important management tool for a severely threatened species such as blackgrouse and we have been working closely with the MoD since the mid-1990s to try to fund consistent predator control on the Otterburn Training Area. The frustrating thing is that considerable sums of public money have been spent here specifically for blackgrouse through agrienvironment schemes to improve habitats, but currently this money cannot be used to fund predator control which is so vital. In contrast, in the north Pennines, blackgrouse numbers have doubled in the past two years. Why such a difference? Here, public funds to improve moorland habitats act in synergy with private investment on grouse moors. Gamekeepers manage predators to maximise red grouse numbers for driven shooting. Already, conservation organisations are busy discussing restoring blackgrouse at Otterburn by moving surplus birds produced on grouse moor fringes in the north Pennines into the now empty Otterburn habitats. Perhaps this is a reasonable aim, but only if it is accepted that wildlife management involves predator control. Which Government department will bite the bullet and pay for blackgrouse conservation?