‘Let blackcock thrive’

HE would say no to starting to shoot black grouse again and yes to continuing to protect the iconic species.

Peeblesshire gamekeeper and chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association (SGA), Alex Hogg was reacting this week to a Dumfriesshire farmer’s book on black grouse which urges a return to shooting them so that big estates would put money into protecting and rearing them, the way they do red grouse.

Mr Hogg said: “It’s great that numbers of black grouse are rising and I think it’s really important, but we do not think numbers are big enough to start shooting them 
again.”

“Where species are taken off protection lists – like the capercaillie – they decline. There has got to be that interest to try and bring a species back up and if you look at where the black grouse are successful, it tends to be where there is predation control by gamekeepers.”

Blackcock – an old name for the species – are larger than their red cousins and are noted for their dramatic courting “leks”. They haven’t been shot for 20 years because of a voluntary ban upheld by sportsmen and women.

But writer Patrick Laurie argues: “People are willing to invest a great deal of money into cultivating private land for shooting purposes, and red grouse, which are still hunted, are doing fine as a result. My theory is that could only be good for black grouse to get some of that attention focused on them.

“People’s gut reaction is there aren’t that many black grouse, we need to give them full legal protection from shooting, not shoot more of them. But my perspective is it would be a great asset for black grouse if they could be shot.”

His book, The Black Grouse, hits the shelves in time for the Glorious 12th, which this year is a Sunday, so shooting will start on Monday.

Simon Lester, head gamekeeper at the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, has some sympathy with Mr Laurie’s view.

“You can understand his rationale: people want a return for their investment. With the grey partridge, the only strongholds now are where people shoot them. But the black grouse is different to the grey partridge [in that numbers are much smaller]. But if numbers came back to a shootable surplus and it meant more investment in the species, I wouldn’t be against a return to shooting them, but you have got to get everything else right first,” he said.

Numbers of black grouse have risen on Langholm Moor, now more than four years into a 10-year project to combine the interests of conservation and a commercial grouse moor. Red grouse have had a rough year because of the wet summer and raptors, said Mr Lester, but numbers, which rose at the start of the project, are holding their own.

“I think they responded to our predator control of foxes, crows, stoats and weasels and their habitat at the edge of the moor has been fairly constant and increasing”, he said.

But the conservation and bird charity RSPB Scotland, which is involved in the Langholm Moor project, gave the writer’s argument short shrift.

A spokesman for the charity in Scotland said: “Black grouse have undergone huge declines in their numbers over the past quarter of a century, and the steepest of those declines occurred when the species was still being shot, before the voluntary moratorium on shooting them as a quarry species.

As such, the author’s argument that starting to shoot them again would increase their numbers seems on the face of it somewhat simplistic and specious.

“The important thing is that, in recent years, black grouse have begun to increase their population again, showing that the conservation efforts to turn around their fortunes are beginning to bear fruit.

“It is still early days, but those areas where habitat is managed specifically for the benefit of black grouse appear to be producing a surplus of new birds which are colonising the wider countryside and establishing new lekking sites.

“We hope that this will increase further in the coming years and the population will continue to increase with ongoing conservation efforts of landowners, conservationists and government working together.”

An SGA spokesperson said: “We are incredibly pleased black grouse numbers have increased and statistics show they have done best on the estates managed by gamekeepers.

“I can understand where the author is coming from because black grouse have benefited very well from predator control by gamekeepers and habitat measures taken by gamekeepers, but to start shooting them again is not on anyone’s agenda.”