Outdoors: Live and lek live at black grouse mating begins

Black Grouse on display. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Black Grouse on display. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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THE striking courtship display of the black grouse must rank as one of Scotland’s most amazing wildlife spectacles, with the cock and hen birds gathering on traditional areas of open ground known as leks, which are like natural amphitheatres framed by mist-shrouded woods and distant snow-streaked hills.

Lekking will begin in the next month or so and most typically occurs as dawn breaks when the grass is often still frosted and the air is sharp. It starts slowly with a few cock birds flighting down onto an area of grassland or other clearing. Soon more appear, and then almost as if from nowhere, the grey forms of two or three hen birds can be glimpsed furtively lurking around the edges.

One blackcock approaches another and the air begins to fill with a hypnotic warbling croon that resonates from deep within their vibrating and engorged throats. It is quite unlike any other bird sound that I’ve heard in Scotland and it can carry in the air for a surprisingly long distance. The noise doesn’t at first sound aggressive, but interspersed between the softer warbles are frequent sharp echoing hisses, signalling the seriousness of the intent, which is to drive off rival males and mate with as many hens as possible.

The males continually size up their love rivals; they croon, warble and hiss with heads bowed and wings drooped; the red wattles above the eyes inflamed with sexual excitement. The blackcocks sidle and turn to reveal their glossy black lyre-shaped tails which exhibit wonderfully contrasting white flushes of feathers at the rear that resemble the frills on the shirt of some Victorian dandy.

Sometimes a fight occurs between two cock birds with flapping wings and flailing feet, but usually little physical harm is done as it is all about posture and threat.

Sadly, this wonderful sight has become harder to witness in recent times due to a significant fall in the population of black grouse which has resulted in it being “red-listed” and designated a “priority species” for the UK government’s Biodiversity Action Plan Programme. This incredibly attractive bird has disappeared from many parts of its former European range, and in Scotland where two-thirds of the remaining UK population now live, overall numbers fell by 29 per cent between 1995 and 2005 (even more so in southern Scotland).

The principal reason for such a dramatic fall is down to the rather specialised habitat requirements of the black grouse, which relies on a patchwork landscape of rough grassland, interspersed with small areas of woodland and adjoining heather moor. Large-scale land management changes including the agricultural intensification of moorland edge habitat, combined with increased grazing from sheep and red deer, along with blanket afforestation has reduced the number of suitable areas for the grouse. Predation by increased numbers of foxes and crows on eggs and chicks is also proving a problem in many areas.

A number of local action plan projects in Scotland are currently underway to address this decline that involves a variety of conservation, game and landowning organisations, as well as farmers, foresters and sporting estates. Initiatives have included the creation of suitable habitat through the felling of trees to create more open spaces, and the planting of native species such as birch, hazel and rowan so as to help create the mosaic of the different land types that is so important for the grouse. The wire netting on deer fences has also been marked in some areas to make it more prominent and thus lessen the collision risk from flying birds.

Such initiatives are already beginning to bear fruit, and surveys of traditional lek sites across black grouse strongholds of Dumfries & Galloway, the Borders, Deeside and Speyside have revealed recent increases in numbers, aided by good weather during the crucial breeding season (there may have been a slight reverse last year because of the wet spring and summer).

However, such increases have not been recorded in all parts of the Scottish range and there is still considerable scope to further help the fortunes of the black grouse.

Even near where I live in central Scotland, a natural woodland planting scheme has resulted in a small population of black grouse maintaining a fragile foothold, with signs that the population may be increasing. I occasionally see the birds when walking in the area, and this spring I plan at least one early morning outing in the fervent hope of hearing that marvellous warbling croon echoing through the cold still dawn air.