Black grouse figures at 20-year high

THE number of black grouse, one of Dumfries and Galloway’s most charismatic and secretive birds, is at a 20-year high, according to figures from RSPB Scotland.

Famed for their handsome plumage and spectacular courtship displays (leks), black grouse are one of the fastest declining species in the UK, with populations falling from an estimated 25,000 displaying males in 1970 to just over 5,000 in 2005.

But surveys from last year show that locally their numbers have increased, in an area stretching from Galloway Forest Park to the hills of Moffat, with 194 males recorded at 71 sites in 2011, an impressive 42% increase from 2009 results.

Black grouse are counted at lek sites, which is where the males gather to display to the dowdier grey females. The leks are often in remote areas, and survey work to count them is heavily dependent on the efforts of local volunteers. Last year, one such volunteer discovered a previously unknown lek, which is now thought to be the largest in the region.

Alison Graham, from RSPB Scotland, said: “It really is fantastic to have some good news about our black grouse, a bird which is really struggling in parts of the country. Although counting effort has varied over the years, we’re now seeing a general increase across sites which have been consistently monitored for the past six years.

“We’re very grateful to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) who have provided RSPB Scotland with financial support, allowing us to work more closely with land managers. We offer advice on how to improve the habitat for black grouse, and the work really seems to have drawn dividends, particularly in Galloway Forest Park, (managed by Forestry Commission Scotland) where black grouse numbers have shown the greatest increases.”

Chris Miles, from SNH, said: “The work of RSPB and their volunteers has ensured a better understanding of the needs of black grouse. They have advised a number of landowners who have successfully applied for support under the SRDP Rural Priorities grant scheme to carry out management for this species. In addition advice on how to restructure the edge of forestry plantations is being implemented to improve their open hill habitat. Although too early to be certain, the species does appear to be responding positively to this work, which is hugely reassuring to all involved.”

With more lek sites waiting to be discovered across Dumfries and Galloway, RSPB Scotland is eager to hear from anyone who would be interested in becoming involved in the survey work.

Alison said: “Lek surveying does involve early starts, and often a bit of a hike as well, but it really is worth it. Seeing and hearing black grouse lekking in the first light of dawn has to be one of the most spectacular natural experiences you can have in Scotland. I’d be delighted to hear from anyone who would like to give surveying a go.”

To find out more about volunteering for the project, or to report any black grouse sightings, you can phone RSPB Scotland’s Dumfries and Galloway office on 01556 670464