28 August 2013

Hot summer makes it a record-breaker for rare black grouse chicks

Researchers from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, who have been monitoring black grouse breeding success in England for the past 25 years, were jubilant as they discovered record-breaking breeding productivity this summer with some hens managing to raise up to 10 or 11 chicksScientists from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, who have been monitoring the highs and lows of black grouse breeding in England for the past 25 years, were jubilant as they discovered record-breaking breeding productivity this summer.

The GWCT’s annual breeding counts of black grouse have revealed that the birds have produced on average 4.4 chicks per hen in England. This is almost four times as high as the average 1.2 chicks per hen in previous years.

Dr Phil Warren, a black grouse specialist with the GWCT said, “This has been a fantastic year, with most hens managing to raise chicks - some with exceptionally large broods. This year we have seen a hen with 10 chicks and one with 11 which for black grouse is quite exceptional. This is all in stark contrast to last year when breeding productivity was appalling and one sample of 35 hens raised just seven chicks between them.”

Dr Warren, explains this difference, “Black grouse breeding productivity is linked to weather conditions in June when the chicks hatch. Last year it was cold and wet and this year it has been warm and dry. Warm, dry conditions mean an abundance of insects, such as sawfly larvae, which young chicks depend on when they first hatch. This bumper breeding is extremely encouraging and we expect to see this reflected in an increase in males attending leks next spring.”

Black grouse in northern England have suffered set-backs in their recovery over the past few years. This enigmatic ‘red-listed’ species dropped to their lowest levels following two years of appallingly wet summers following the hardest winter for more than 30 years in 2009/10. But this good breeding year is a welcome boost to help increase both numbers and occupied range. The abundance of young recruits in the population also enables the Trust to continue the drive to increase occupied range in the Yorkshire Dales through moving young males this autumn from donor moors in the core of the range to specially selected release areas.

Dr Warren says, “This year has provided a much needed boost for black grouse in northern England. In England, 95% of the remaining black grouse are found in areas associated with grouse moors, here protection from predators by moorland gamekeepers combined with habitat improvements has nurtured black grouse through some very lean years and has helped them maximise on this year’s fantastic conditions.”

END

Picture Credit: Lindsay Waddell. Photocaption: Researchers from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, who have been monitoring black grouse breeding success in England for the past 25 years, were jubilant as they discovered record-breaking breeding productivity this summer with some hens managing to raise up to 10 or 11 chicks.


Notes to editors

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is an independent wildlife conservation charity which carries out scientific research into Britain’s game and wildlife. We advise farmers and landowners on improving wildlife habitats and we lobby for agricultural and conservation policies based on science. We employ 20 post-doctoral scientists and 40 other research staff with expertise in areas such as birds, insects, mammals, farming and statistics.  We undertake our own research as well as projects funded by contract and grant-aid from Government and private bodies.   The Trust is also responsible for a number of Government Biodiversity Action Plan species and is lead partner for grey partridge and joint lead partner for brown hare and black grouse.

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Black grouse background

  • 150 years ago black grouse were numerous and widespread and could be found on many heaths of southern and eastern England. The decline and contraction of range began about a century ago following gradual improvements in farming. Today’s continuing loss stems from the following:
  • Loss of habitat mosaic: Land-use was mixed. Black grouse favour a patchwork quilt of farmland adjacent to moor and forest.
  • Over-grazing: High densities of sheep and red deer eat out ground cover and thus reduce the abundance of caterpillars that grouse chicks need to survive in their early days of life.
  • Changes in forestry: Black grouse like the ground cover in young plantations but as these develop into solid conifer thickets they tend to leave.
  • Weather: The fortunes of black grouse can be seriously affected by weather related set-backs including cold, wet summers which can cause a high mortality in newly hatched chicks and prolonged freezing conditions with heavy snow fall in in winter.
  • Increased mortality: Generalist predators such as crows, foxes, stoats and some birds of prey cause a high annual loss. In addition forest deer fences kill many birds.

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