The first gulf war began at 3am. Having spent the last week surveying for Black Grouse, I can see why. If you were to measure your pulse over the course of a day, you would notice it rose to two peaks at around 10am and 10pm at night, and fell to two troughs, at around 3pm and 3am, which is when the lowest trough occurs. This is precisely when you must get up to carry out transect surveys for lekking black grouse. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VeN3SxFG60
We spent last week in Kilmartin to carry out some Black Grouse transects on behalf of the RSPB, who are this year carrying out a complete census of the Argyll population. Although the news earlier this spring reported signs of an encouraging increase in Black Grouse against a long-term declining trend http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-17260069 , there are concerns that in Argyll they might not be faring so well. As an indication, whereas in the species’ strongholds in the Grampians it would be usual to see ten or even twenty males on a lek, in Argyll the leks tend to be in the single figures, and it is not uncommon to find a pair or even a single bird displaying alone. This makes leks harder to find, hence the need to carry out early morning transects. Fortunately as you would see from the video, the Black Grouse’s call is distinctive, and on a calm morning will carry for over a km.
So once we had had much needed coffee, cereal, toast and more coffee we piled into the van and drove off to our start points, unloading in pairs to head off into the gloaming. Out of the ten transects we carried out, we found two leks overall. We went back to count these on a subsequent day, but didn’t find more birds attending than we had found initially, a pair of males on one, and a singleton on the other. Although we weren’t all lucky enough to find a lek, being up early always has its compensations - its always special to watch the dawn; and from the hills of Argyll we had spectacular views to Jura, Scarba, Luing, Shuna and the Garvellachs, where we could retrace the route of our spectacular November boat trip http://swt-dess.tumblr.com/post/15396275578/we-had-a-fantastic-trip-out-into-the-corryvreckan . The early morning is also the best time for seeing wildlife, and over the week among the group we saw golden eagles, and red and black throated divers.
What more can be done to help the Black Grouse in Argyll? Part of the reason why the birds are doing better in the east of Scotland is climatic - grouse of all kinds fare badly in wet weather in May and June, when the young chicks chill and die of hypothermia from walking through soaking vegetation. Black Grouse need a mosaic of habitats, close cropped grassland for lek sites; deep heather for nesting; wet flushes in which to take their chicks for insects; and birch woodland and willow scrub for shelter and winter feeding. The vast sitka plantations which clothe much of Argyll are not ideal once they get past the thicket stage, so there is an opportunity to make them a little more diverse as they enter their second rotation – leaving areas unplanted, and breaking up the edge with lower density planting of native broadleaves. On open ground the two key influences are grazing and burning. In Argyll it will often be too wet to carry out muirburn, and upland grazing regimes are changing profoundly as farmers in the North and West have reduced their sheep stocks significantly over the last five years in response to farm subsidy changes. That said, the hills I walked last week in Argyll were stocked pretty tightly, and I think there will still be a place for the type of package provided by the Scotland Rural Development Programme to help Black Grouse. http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/farmingrural/SRDP/RuralPriorities/Packages/BlackGrouse This offers farmers incentive payments to create new native woodlands; reduce and manage their grazing; manage bracken and heather; and control predators.
However, one of the drawbacks of the SRDP schemes is that there is little monitoring carried out to measure their effectiveness. The schemes have also become very bureaucratically complex, and it takes a lot of time (and money to employ consultants) for farmers to apply. There is also a lack of continuity between schemes. Farmers typically commit to undertake habitat management for a five or ten year period. The budgets for the schemes are tight, so what happens when a scheme comes to an end and a farmer can’t get a place in the next one? I’m worried that a lot of good work and public money could have been wasted in agri-environment payments over the last 20 years - Audit Scotland should look into it.
I also think that the changes in farming subsidy and the subsequent response - a decline in ewe numbers in NW and SW Scotland of over 400,000 animals from 2004-10 [note that that is the estimated total size of the red deer herd] must be having profound consequences for our uplands. We need to know more about the effect this change is having on the upland environment, on our peatlands, on upland vegetation, on red deer, and on birds such as the black grouse. Future work for members of the DESS team!
The opinions expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by the Scottish Wildlife Trust.
Note: June agricultural census figures published in the Economic Report on Scottish Agriculture show a decline in breeding ewe numbers in NW Scotland from 818,000 in 2004 (the year before farm subsidies changed) to 606,000 in 2010 and from 1.25m to 1.03m in SW Scotland.