Should the Black Grouse be reintroduced to Derbyshire and the Peak District?
PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 August 2019
Paul Hobson makes a case for the rewilding of Black Grouse – a Red List species that has again disappeared from the area, despite release programmes earlier this century
Spotting the hide looming out of the dark after a mile walk over rough moorland was certainly a relief. Luckily my friend had put out a few guide sticks that allowed me to stumble over the heather in the right direction. I didn't fancy getting lost or missing out on an experience that I had been waiting a long time to repeat.
Once settled into my chair and with my camera arranged, I could relax. It was still pitch dark but I knew the action would start well before dawn.
Half an hour later the occasional croak of a red grouse was submerged by the clatter of 16 pairs of wings as birds landed all around me. I couldn't see anything but I didn't mind, everything for the next 30 minutes would be in my ears and mind.
Then it started. A low cooing began like a fluty bubbling punctured by hissing and croaking, then it settled down. For ten solid minutes I was serenaded by 16 male black grouse bubbling in unison. The air literally hummed. It was one of the most magical experiences I have ever witnessed. Well, to be more accurate, heard and felt as I still couldn't see anything in the dark. For those ten minutes I sat back and let the magic wash over and through me.
Every morning for a week I tramped the same path over the Scottish moor and spent five fantastic hours listening and, when the sun rose, photographing black grouse at the lek. A lek is a gathering place where male black grouse come to perform every morning in spring to other cocks and females, when they deign to put in an appearance. Lekking is really an unusual form of courtship that few birds use.
My very first experience of a black grouse lek was in Staffordshire at Swallow Moss in the 1990s. I have also watched a flock of five males flying up a remote clough in the Goyt Valley, again before the Millennium. Today I would be incredibly lucky to find a single black grouse in Derbyshire, the Peak or Staffordshire. Their tale is a sorry one. Once fairly well represented across much of England, Wales and Scotland, black grouse have been declining for decades now. In our area the last wild one was recorded in 2000 at Swallow Moss. Derwent Dale lost theirs in 1992, Matlock Moor in the 1970s.
The situation seemed hopeless but in 2003 Severn Trent financed a captive breeding and release programme. Could this spectacular bird be back for good? During a five-year period over 200 birds were released around the Upper Derwent Valley. Initially things seemed positive but - the best laid plans!
The release programme came to an end and black grouse did lek again, but unfortunately not for long. Many birds dispersed, some even into Sheffield. Friends had one on their garden wall in Lodge Moor! Some birds did stay in the area and I personally watched two leks from a distance. A farmer friend told me that they regularly came into his fields and I even saw two males perched on a telegraph wire near Strines.
However, the early optimism quickly faded. The number of males at each lek dwindled. I even watched one lek near Strines with a solitary bird sadly courting fresh air. The last recorded bird I can find out about was in 2011 (from The Birds of Derbyshire, a fantastic reference book). Black grouse in Derbyshire and the Peak District are no more, once again.
My journey to Glen Feshie in Scotland in April this year was for two primary reasons - to spend time once again at a lek and to find out first hand a little about the rewilding that is going on to support birds like the black grouse. Our black grouse were exterminated by very simple things: an increase in sheep numbers, grassland intensification and drainage - all leading to habitat loss. Black grouse need a mosaic habitat that must contain a number of elements - grassy open areas suitable for lekking and scrubby woodland with birch and rowan that has an understory of bilberry and heather. They are not really open moorland birds but prefer woodland edge with specific requirements - ones that we met for over a thousand years, then didn't!
In Glen Feshie there is a clear message being planted, both on the ground and hopefully in our minds and hearts. We need to change how we view and manage the countryside and we need to change quickly. Rewilding is really only the latest buzz word for landscape-scale conservation. We have been considering it for years, I even remember discussing it at university in the 1970s. However, what rewilding can do is restimulate our passion, and hopefully our mission, and take it much further in trying to create a countryside that not only provides for people but also for wildlife, and one that can tackle climate change.
We have been actively conserving our countryside for over 50 years but on the whole we have failed. The local lack of black grouse leks is testament to that. We need a new beginning and I feel rewilding might just be the catalyst for this sea change.