An iconic Scottish species – but numbers have declined

Black Grouse are an iconic Scottish species that inhabit woodland edges with undergrowth of heather and blueberries, which they use for food and cover from predators. Numbers have declined since the 1970’s, attributed to various causes including reduced woodland habitat, overgrazing of hill ground, reduced predator control and changes in climate/weather patterns. Although conifer plantings in the 1970’s and 80’s initially provided suitable cover, once such plantings mature they became unsuitable habitat.

What is being done?

In 2012 there was a Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority project – a collaboration between six farms and estates over an 8000-hectare area from Callander to Loch Earn – to preserve and enhance the Black Grouse population in the area. The project used changed management of hill grazing to promote heather growth, targeted predator control and the creation of native woodland.

The CLP Black Grouse project built on this in collaboration with the Drumardoch Estate, on land to the north of Callander, south west of the Drumardoch farm house. The area comprises rough upland grazing land, with several tributaries and a burn running through it. These water courses are reflected in the topography of the site, which includes some steep sided gorges, where sparsely scattered birch and ash trees have grown out of the reach of the deer and sheep that graze the area. The grazing regime supports diversity of habitat types and varied vegetation structure to support black grouse feeding.

A crucial area of low density (500 trees per hectare), native broadleaf woodland has been planted, including Downy birch, Silver birch, Juniper, Rowan and Scots pine. Its location enhances the network of small woods across an area of open hillside and is in a sheltered dell close to a recognised lek site for the Black Grouse. To exclude rabbits, hares and deer, the existing stock fence has been upgraded to deer fence, fitted with one-metre bamboo diagonals every 300 millimetres to increase their visibility to black grouse.

Has it worked?

The success of the project is being monitored by surveys of the number of black grouse, supported by volunteers and coordinated by RSPB. These annual surveys are carried out between mid-March and the end of April, starting on the hill just before dawn! The number of males seen or heard within allocated areas is recorded and reported back to the project officer in RSPB.

In March 2018 eight were recorded. Disappointingly, numbers observed in 2019 were lower: down to two males. This was possibly due to continuing cold weather, or to a move to a different lekking location. The 2020 surveys were prevented by Covid-19 restrictions.

But there is hope. In 2020 the shepherd reported regularly hearing calling males, and actually saw nine. Then at the end of 2020, 29 black grouse where spotted on Drumardoch Estate. For 2021 we will be considering whether survey locations need to be reviewed based on this information, and hopefully we will have some good news from our surveys this April.