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The battle to bring back Welsh grouse

Numbers of red grouse and blackgrouse across the Welsh moorlands are on the rise, but how did this happen after decades of decline? Howard Davies reports


It is difficult to imagine the grouse moors of Wales as they were 100 years ago. A look at the gamebook of one of the estates in the Ceiriog Valley in north-east Wales shows that 2,360 red grouse were shot in the 1913 season, and the same record shows this to be typical for the period spanning the late 1880s to the outbreak of World War I.

The heyday of driven grouse shooting here lasted 25 years, after which annual bag numbers remained around 500 to 600 before tailing off between the 1970s to the 1990s. The same records show a peak in blackgrouse shot between 1960 and 1977, with 22 birds shot in 1960. This is not a high number but an indication of how many there were compared with today. This estate, with its couple of thousand acres of moorland, is typical of many in the area, and it is clear that grouse shooting, both driven and walked up, was a fundamental part of the rural scene from the 1880s up until 25 years ago.

So why did this once integral part of the Welsh sporting calendar collapse? As with any analysis, the temptation is to keep it simple but, in this case, I am not sure this will do it adequate justice.

The two species of grouse native to Wales are, of course, the red grouse (Lagopus lagopus) and the blackgrouse (Tetrao tetrix). Red grouse depend largely on heather moorland, whereas blackgrouse are birds of the forest edge. Both species were historically associated with moorlands for different reasons: the blackgrouse because of the natural interplay between forest, moorland and grassland, and the red grouse because of targeted management for shooting.

Without management, red grouse would still have been found in Wales, but in nothing like the numbers referred to earlier. Blackgrouse, however, are far more influenced by wider factors associated with forestry and farming. Occupying the woodland edge, their habitat is continually changing. Open spaces disappear as scrub and trees take over, and as agricultural fashion, and more latterly grants, change, so too do the crops grown adjacent to moorlands, and with it the grasses and insects, which are the summer food source for blackgrouse adults and chicks.

But habitat change cannot account for everything. Successive changes in upland policy have not only meant that any form of vision for Welsh moorlands was lost, but in some cases, landowners and, in particular, gamekeepers became dissociated from the uplands. As the incentive to manage moorland decreased, so did the fruits of their labour, and before long, cold economic facts took over and all effort was focused on maximising efforts elsewhere, most notably on pheasant shoots lower down the hillsides. I wouldn’t suggest that economics alone determine whether moorlands are managed for grouse, but it would be equally wrong to underplay the role of policymakers in alienating moorland managers from their own land.

Moorland restoration

That, however, is hopefully all in the past. In recent years there has been a renewed interest in moorland management in Wales, particularly by public bodies and charities. The Wildlife Trusts, working with local farmers and landowners, have worked hard to restore their moorland reserves, as have local authorities, in partnership, on privately owned land. The RSPB and the Countryside Council for Wales, now known as Natural Resources Wales, have also helped to bring back the blackgrouse from the brink of extinction.

All of these efforts are proving reasonably successful, but for grouse to have a meaningful future in Wales their existence must be part of the thinking of landowners and gamekeepers. The first step in achieving this is giving credit where credit is due.

Across Wales, 328 blackgrouse cocks were counted this year and, with luck, this will improve year on year. Blackgrouse numbers on Ruabon Moor are close to matching the all-time high of 2011, which is good news indeed. Luck, however, won’t really be enough. Active land management and predator control form an important part of the mix, and this is best carried out by gamekeepers who not only know and understand their patch well, but provide much-needed continuity of action. The current success of blackgrouse in Wales has as much to do with the work of gamekeepers and estate owners as it has of charities and government, but this fact isn’t always given the publicity it deserves.

Bouncing back

So how are red grouse faring? We have been counting grouse with pointers and setters for the past seven years, and now concentrate all of our effort on the moorlands of Wales. I have the luxury of having three moorlands on my doorstep, and each spring and summer we, a small group of optimistic dog handlers, set off in the hope of counting higher numbers than the year before. On the whole, we have not been disappointed.

Recent counts have revealed spring densities of 14 pairs per sq km, giving us summer counts of 40 to 50 birds over the same area. This is a step forward when compared with the summer counts of 2008 when we had only seven birds in the same area.

I wouldn’t like to paint a wholly rosy picture, though. Many count sites still produce only a handful of birds and often there appears to be no recruitment to these populations. Those broods we do find are often small, so it seems likely that some chicks must have succumbed to predation. In most cases, despite improved heather management, the provision of grit and the digging of hollows to hold water, the birds just seem to hang in there, with the population neither expanding nor contracting.

There is active management of the moorland taking place, however, and for the first time in a long time both landowners and gamekeepers seem to be openly excited about the prospect of Welsh grouse.

In the words of Peter Hood, the tenant farmer on Pool Hill, mid-Wales: “If our upland moors are well maintained, the habitat for other upland species is also improved; it isn’t just about the grouse. We must, however, have farmers on our side.

It isn’t unusual to see a thousand crows on the hill during the nesting season. Predator control is vital and it’s just not affordable to employ full-time gamekeepers.”

Summer counts

The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) has adopted a distinctly different approach to moving things forward. Apart from providing sound technical advice, it has actively supported landowners, who themselves wish to take the lead in bringing the uplands back into productive management. The importance of this kind of landowner-led approach cannot be overstated. In my mind, it is the only truly sustainable way forward. Recently we started the summer count in the moorlands around the Ceiriog Valley, which are as beautiful as ever. On the first day we counted 40 grouse over the first sample area. Most pairs had reared strong broods, though the number of surviving young varied considerably.

Currently, owners of moorland in Wales, in partnership with the GWCT and the CLA, are waiting on a decision by the Welsh Government over a grant that would improve these moorlands further. The outcome of this decision is crucial, not only to secure the future of grouse in Wales, but to help reaffirm the vitally important relationship between landowners and their moorlands.