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The Last Grouse?

Writer seeks data…

In Edwardian times, nearly 3 million Red grouse were shot every year on the moors of the British Isles. Huge tomes were compiled on the health and disease of this abundant gamebird and its attractions as a sporting quarry were the mainspring of economic activity in many districts of northern England and the Highlands of Scotland. Although the numbers of grouse are famously cyclical, the underlying population of the Red grouse in Britain and Ireland has been in steady decline and the BTO now describes its future as ‘probably poor’. As recently as 1976, the Breeding Atlas showed much of upland Ireland and Wales covered with the solid red squares indicating the presence of breeding birds. By 1993, these had been reduced to just a sprinkling of red dots. The next Atlas will show even further retreat. The grouse moors of the Pennines and Grampians are still well stocked, but the number of breeding birds has dropped from millions to an estimated 150,000 pairs.Writer Willy Newlands, who has been researching the retreat of the grouse, says: “One of the intriguing aspects of the story is the way in which these gamebirds suddenly vanish from the record books. For years an estate will have gamekeepers and a land agent who keeps details of every bird shot on every shooting day. Then the numbers fall away, the shooting no longer involves profitable driving but non-profit shooting over pointers or by walking guns, the gamekeeper is sacked and the game book is closed. This is the point where birders should take over, but they are reluctant it seems to pay much attention to gamebirds. When did the last grouse call on Exmoor, on Cannock Chase, on Colonsay, in the New Forest or among the executive homes which now cover the moorland at Portlethen on the outskirts of Aberdeen? No one seems to know.”

He says: “We know when the last Heath Hen boomed on the barrens of Martha’s Vineyard - to the exact day, 11 March, 1932 - but we have let our own grouse slip away from their outposts almost unrecorded.”Among the intriguing aspects of the The Last Grouse is the fact that the species (now officially Lagopus lagopus scotica) was often introduced to its outposts, such as the releases on Exmoor and Dartmoor in 1915 through 1916, rather than being a native. Although the Willow Grouse, of which it is a sub-species, is fully capable of flying 1000km on migration in North America and Asia, the British bird does not seem to have been such a keen explorer and colonist. Willy would also like information on birds which have turned up in odd places over the years.

In a very few breeding sites, the grouse are making tiny comebacks today. There is a recent first record of successful breeding on the island of Bressay, Shetland, just across the harbour at Lerwick. But there is even some doubt whether the species is endemic to Shetland. “Unsuccessful early efforts were made to introduce them to the Shetland Islands …”according to John L. Long in Introduced Birds of the World.

Willy Newlands mailto:wnewlands@aol.com would like to hear from anyone who has interesting anecdotes or data about the retreat of the Red grouse from its British outposts. But he does have doubts as to whether anyone will be able to explain why it was thought they would thrive in Fiji, where they were ‘released some time before 1926’.

4th July 2014