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Spring counts: Red grouse

I was once reliably informed that there had been more money spent on researching the red grouse than on any other bird on the planet. Considering that work has been ongoing for more than 100 years, it is reasonable to assume my informant was correct. In many respects, Lord Lovat?s report, The Grouse in Health and Disease (1911), is still the greatest piece of work ever done because it broke so much new ground for those keepers and owners who had a thirst for knowledge about their quarry, the red grouse.

What those men did not have, though, was access to so much of the technology which has aided scientists in more recent times. The ability to track individual birds has given us more knowledge about the species.

Twice-yearly movement

At the turn of the 1900s, there were quite substantial movements of birds from moor to moor at varying times of the year ? not always due to severe weather ? but it was not known why these birds were moving. In more recent times, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) and other organisations have shown that there are two movements of young hen birds dispersing from their parent moors for quite some distance at times, out on to adjacent moorland. These movements are in the autumn around October and November and then there is another one in March.

This year, there would be little doubt that the March movement was put on hold by the birds simply because much of the moorland mass was blanketed in snow and birds were hard pressed to find food on a day-to-day basis.


The whole point of this rather lengthy explanation of grouse biology is that in the few available days we had following the snow melt, we did our best to get a few stock counts done. This year these counts had rather more significance than many springs in previous years, because we were not sure just how well the birds had come through the last hard spell of winter. Severe weather in the beginning of spring is never a good thing for wildlife.

At the end of winter most living things are at their lowest ebb and ready for better food, temperatures and conditions. This year conditions got worse, not better, to the point where since the snow melted, we have found a reasonable number of waders that had died from hunger. Why they did not retreat back to the coast I don?t know as we are only an hour or so in flying time from the mudflats at Teesside, where they could have stocked up again. The urge to breed must be a very strong one. When we get conditions like we experienced this year, it tends to have an impact on stocks. So even though we had limited time we did our best to get a snapshot of the stock on the moor.

The news was pretty good as the counts came back from the lads on the ground, but one thing of interest was the fact that we saw quite a lot of single hens. We often get quite a few trios ? two hens and one cock ? but this year?s ?spares? were hens which had not been able to find a mate or had not had the time to do so. The assumption I made from this was that the snow had delayed the normal dispersal, but the urge to move was such that the young hens scattered as soon as they were able to.

We were on the ground with the dogs only a few days following the thaw and it is reasonable to assume that these hens had not had time to get themselves sorted out in their new domain. Given time I am sure that most will find a mate and produce something for us this August. We were not unique in finding so many spare hens because I gather the few counts that the GWCT managed to get done showed a similar trait on other moors.

North-South divide

I could not pen another piece without mentioning the timing of flora and fauna, which has become a regular conversation topic this year. According to BBC TV?s quiz programme QI, spring moves north at rather less than walking pace ? two miles per hour to be precise.

Well, I am not sure just what is in bloom in the deep south now, but the last of my snowdrops have just given up, and this week I saw my first coltsfoot in bloom, and it is now May. I have a feeling that ?spring? took a few days off and did some sightseeing en route this year.