Black grouse display courtship in Upper Teesdale
PUBLISHED: 17:05 05 April 2011 | UPDATED: 19:09 20 February 2013
The courtship display of the black grouse is one of Britain's great wildlife spectacles. <br/>We witness the posturing in Upper Teesdale Words and pictures by Ann and Steve Toon
Black grouse need to produce 1.2 chicks per hen to maintain numbers, but they produced less than 0.3, explains Dr Phil Warren, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) research scientist charged with overseeing black grouse conservation efforts in England.
Better weather in summer 2009 saw a good breeding season, but then worse was to follow, with the severe winter of 2009/10. We had snow covering the heather for three months, says Dr Warren. By spring 2010 the number of males had fallen to only 400.
It was a disastrous series of events for the black grouse and the people who had worked so hard to conserve them, but as Dr Warren points out, it was only because they had built up the numbers to a reasonably healthy 1,200 males that the birds were able to survive the vagaries of the weather as well as they did.
Its been a different story in Northumberlands Cheviot Hills, where a much smaller black grouse population has been clinging on in the Otterburn army ranges. Back in 2002 around 100 males were counted here, but by last spring only 11 survived, and according to Dr Warren the population is teetering on the verge of extinction.
The good news is that 2010 was the best breeding season for 15 years, and Dr Warren is optimistic the north Pennines population may bounce back fairly quickly. The severe weather of this last winter didnt affect the area so badly, with snow only lying for around four weeks. I believe the north Pennine birds will have recovered well since last spring, he says. But hes less optimistic about the Cheviot birds, which were forced to endure more severe weather.
One possibility being considered is to give the Cheviot population a helping hand by relocating birds into the area. Black grouse females will disperse fairly long distances as they mature, but males are very reluctant to move far from where they are born, instead remaining close to the traditional courtship display areas, known as leks (lek comes from a Norse word meaning play). This makes natural recolonisation a very slow process.
The GWCT has been very successful in relocating black grouse southwards from the Pennines area, into moorland on the fringes of the Yorkshire Dales. In a three year project 24 males were released at two sites with ideal habitat, where predators such as crows, foxes and stoats, which prey on eggs and chicks, were well controlled. There were no established leks in the area, but it was believed that dispersing females were likely to fly through.
In Spring 2010 five males were observed lekking at both sites, and following an excellent breeding year 13 males and a mixed flock of 30 birds have now been seen in one area south of Hawes. With a significant number of these birds being young males, it suggests the population has already started to breed successfully.
But Dr Warren is cautious about the possibility of relocating birds into the Cheviots. The population is small and isolated, habitat management is less grouse friendly, and predator control less effective.
Conserving black grouse is a complicated business, but the rewards are potentially great. The black grouse is an important indicator species, and a thriving population is a sign of a healthy ecosystem.
Take a slow meander along the small lanes at the top of Upper Teesdale this month and youve a very good chance of spotting these superb birds, scattered among the fields or perched on dry stone walls. Stop and listen and you may well hear the males burbling serenade.
The males are big, spectacular and have a stunning display, says Martin Kitching, of Northern Experience Wildlife Tours, which runs tours to the North Pennines.
The important thing is to minimise disturbance - if you can see them from your car, then stay in your car, he adds.
Its pitch dark, its cold, and the seats of the ancient Landrover are bum-numbingly uncomfortable. But we dont care.
All around us the air is filled with a deep burbling song, a melodic, almost hypnotic cooing in multi-channel surround sound, and were right at the sweet spot. Were parked on a deeply rutted farm track, high on a fell in Upper Teesdale, its four in the morning, and were about to witness one of the most remarkable wildlife spectacles in Britain.
The first light of dawn breaks on the horizon to the east, and we
start to make out dark shapes all around us.
As the light strengthens, we see them more clearly, large, plump birds, glossy black, with white flashes on their wings and tails, and brilliant red wattles above their eyes.
They are male black grouse; strutting their stuff in a parade of preening self-aggrandisement, chests puffed out, great lyre-shaped tails splayed, flashing snowy-white undertail feathers in a courtship display designed to intimidate their rivals and attract any wandering hen grouse to join the party. And all the time they maintain this incessant warbling soundtrack.
Eventually a female, drab and brown, flies into the fray, provoking the males to even greater excesses of bluster and bravado, but shes not impressed, and soon departs. By seven oclock the males are starting to flag, and one-by-one fly off to feeding grounds higher amongst the heather. Soon were staring at an empty patch of flattened grass. Its time to head home for breakfast.
The black grouse of the north Pennines are one of Britains conservation success stories - or at least they were until very recently.
Black grouse feed on buds and shoots, especially heather, and on catkins and berries, such as billberry. To prosper they need a mixed habitat of heather moorland, grassy meadows, and woodland. Intensive farming, overgrazing by sheep and deer, and the planting of dense conifer plantations has contributed to a long term decline in a species
which was once found throughout most of England.
Hard work by conservationists, farmers, gamekeepers and land managers has stemmed that decline by reducing grazing pressure and introducing grouse-friendly land management, turning the north Pennines into a last stronghold for the species in England. Breeding males increased by 55 per cent from 773 to 1,200 in the period from 1998 from 2007.
Then disaster struck. Black grouse chicks are particularly vulnerable to bad weather in the month of June, and the two wet summers of 2007 and 2008 saw chick survival rates plummet.
Black grouse viewing
If you're keen to see black grouse for yourself, you can join an organised lek visit in Upper Teesdale on April 9 or 16.
The events, organised by Natural England and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, include dawn viewing of a lek (bring binoculars), a short tour of habitats, and breakfast at the Langdon Beck Hotel, all for 8.75. Booking is essential - telephone 01833 622374.
Northern Experience Wildlife Tours will be running North Pennines Safari Days, with black grouse as one of their main target species, on April 8, May 11, June 3 and June 17, plus a 'black grouse bonanza' holiday from May 5-8. Visit www.newtltd.co.uk for details.