Long-term habitat management, predator control and co-operation have resulted in the first rise in numbers of black grouse in Wales since 2011

Numbers of black grouse in North Wales are recovering thanks to habitat management and predator control, according to latest count figures released by Natural Resources Wales (NRW).

The numbers have been hailed by the organisations involved, which include RSPB Cymru, local farmers and landowners, and NRW as a testament to what can be achieved through good moorland management, and have been welcomed by those involved with black grouse elsewhere in the UK.

Spring counts of lekking males in the area were carried out this year recorded almost 320 birds. The biggest increase was recorded at Ruabon Mountain, near Wrexham, where nest-predators such as crows and foxes are kept under control by gamekeepers, with good results for other ground-nesting birds as well as the grouse.

Hopes for a turn around

It is hoped that this represents a turn around for the UK’s most southerly population of black grouse, whose numbers in the north Wales region peaked at 328 lekking males in 2011 but had fallen more recently to 297 in 2012 and to only 249 in 2013.

In the long term, populations have been slowly recovering since the 1980s, when numbers fell to around 140 lekking males prompting fears that the bird would disappear from Wales altogether.

A number of foresters, farmers and organisations including the Wynnstay Estate, RSPB Cymru and NRW, have been working together on long-term projects to improve the condition of the upland habitat of the black grouse in north Wales, which is thought to be one of the reasons for this year’s success along with predator control and favourable weather conditions last summer.

The habitat restoration work included restoring moisture to the moorland bogs by blocking ditches, keeping bracken in check and the controlled burning and cutting of heather. This attracted more insects, and increased food and shelter available to the black grouse, as well as improving carbon storage and slowing the rate of water run-off, decreasing the likelihood of flooding in the area.

Economic and environmental optimism

Those involved with the project expressed optimism for both the environmental and economic implications of the results.

RSPB Cymru Biodiversity Manager Stephen Bladwell said: “The project demonstrates how practical habitat management for conservation can work and add value to existing management and the local economy.

“In addition to the excellent results for black grouse, other species are benefiting on Ruabon, with curlew numbers holding up and golden plover returning to breed. This demonstrated the value of sustainable farming, game management and conservation – all important components in the future of our uplands.”

Protected sites manager for NRW Nick Thomas said the results were “very encouraging” and highlighted the additional beneficial effects for the local economy: “As the Welsh population is now the most southerly in the UK, many bird watchers flock to the area to get a glimpse of this beautiful bird and stay overnight, which benefits local hotels and restaurants.”

Manager of the Wynnstay Estate, Captain Tim Bell said: “We have been working in partnership with RSPB Cymru and Natural Resources Wales to manage Ruabon Moor since the late 1990s. Here we have seen a steady improvement in some of the key wildlife characteristics and habitats of this moor.”

Harry Williams-Wynn, owner of Ruabon Moor said: “The keepering staff have done some excellent work on the site to improve it for the black grouse. Their hard work has helped this iconic species recover on Ruabon. We hope that numbers continue to grow in years to come.”

Moorland management groups and experts in England and Scotland also gave a warm welcome the news of the results and the co-operative methods through which they were achieved.

Amanda Anderson, Director of the Moorland Association, whose members own or manage 850,000 acres of moorland in England and Wales, said: “It is fantastic to hear about ‘back to basics’ land management being deployed to improve habitat and special species. It is even more rewarding to see that everyone who has a shared agenda is working together to achieve the same results. Let’s hope this integrated approach of predator control, heather cutting and burning, peatland re-wetting and habitat creation can be rolled out across the rest of upland Wales for the benefit of all.”

Scottish Gamekeepers Association Charirman Alex Hogg said: “It is really encouraging to see all parties taking on board game management techniques and seeing clearly the positive affects it produces. Gamekeepers have obviously known the merits of heather burning and predator control for a long time but would like to see these techniques cemented in modern conservation action because there are still those who attempt to discredit them, probably for no other reason than they are associated with practical gamekeeping rather than textbook ‘conservation’.”

Patrick Laurie, who works with the Heather Trust to promote integrated and sustainable moorland management for agriculture, sport and conservation, also welcomed the news, highlighting the importance of continued co-operation and predator control to build on the current success, saying: “Last year was an excellent breeding season for black grouse across Britain, and the exemplary partnership work between shooting and conservation bodies ensured that North Wales was well positioned to capitalise on the long, hot June of 2013.

“As with all wild game, good weather can often be the single most important factor in breeding success, and lek numbers were well up in many areas across Britain. The real challenge for North Wales as a whole will be to sustain these numbers and build on them in the coming years.

“Unfortunately, we cannot always rely on good weather nowadays, and in poor years without many young birds it is all too easy to see these numbers gradually slip back down again after a few wet summers. This is where we see the real value of predator control as a means of safeguarding the breeding stock, and it is hardly surprising that Ruabon in particular should have prospered in the presence of gamekeepers.”