21 June 2013

Tree planting project provides a vital life-line for threatened black grouse

Despite the freezing conditions students from Newton Rigg College in Penrith, who are studying Level 3 Countryside and Game Management applied themselves enthusiastically to the task of helping to create wood for black grouse this winterThe Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s (GWCT's) ‘Woodlands for black grouse’ project has now completed its second winter and is throwing a vital life-line for the very threatened black grouse following some of the coldest winters seen in living memory.

The project was inspired by the devastating effects of the winter in 2009/10 which saw a decline of 35% in black grouse numbers and shockingly, the population plummeted to below 500 male birds their stronghold in the north of England.

In winter black grouse depend on heather to survive but when this is buried under snow the buds and berries of trees and bushes provide a critical emergency food source. However, the severe winter three years ago highlighted the dependence of black grouse on woodland cover. Many black grouse habitats were under deep frozen snow for almost four months which meant that birds were unable to access ground vegetation and with the scarcity of trees in many of our upland areas, there was no alternative food source available above the snow.

This year the ‘Woodlands for black grouse’ project has initiated a number of volunteer events, with 1,600 trees planted to help improve winter feeding habitats for this iconic upland bird. The project, which is supported by a Your Heritage Grant from Heritage Lottery Fund, set out to increase woodland habitats for black grouse whilst helping people learn about this beautiful and rare bird of the Northern Pennine Hills.

The project’s success is a result of partnership collaborations between the GWCT, the Woodland Trust and the Natural England Reserve Staff from Moorhouse NNR, together with the enthusiastic cooperation of land owners to create woodlands for black grouse.

The achievement of this inspiring collaboration can be seen on the open woodland that was planted this winter at Westernhope Moor in Weardale.

This site is locally important for black grouse with the moorland management already targeted to restoring and enhancing favoured black grouse habitats. To complement this work the owners were keen to create some scrub woodland along the moor fringe to provide winter feeding resources. The ‘Woodlands for black grouse’ project was able to offer advice on tree species and planting design, with grant support through the Woodland Trust to provide the trees and tree guards.

Three planting events were held at the site and staff from Natural England, together with the Head Gamekeeper, were on hand to help Stanhope Duke of Edinburgh volunteers and game management students from Newton Rigg College in Penrith learn about black grouse and upland ecology and conservation.

This highly successful collaborative partnership between the two charities; the GWCT and the Woodland Trust has also helped to plant further black grouse friendly woodlands across the North Pennines and Yorkshire Dales, with the Woodland Trust providing their expertise alongside grant support, whilst the GWCT have helped target these resources at areas where they will be most beneficial to black grouse. These pockets of birch, rowan, hawthorn, alder and willows will establish in time to create important, and possibly critical, lifelines in future winters.

John Tucker, director of woodland creation at the Woodland Trust, said, “Planting new woods and trees is vital for people and the environment, but also for wildlife. We know a lot of our iconic British species have sadly declined over the last few decades, and without creating new habitats we risk losing species like the black grouse. This type of work is vital to secure the future of our beloved wildlife.”

Fran Atterton, from the GWCT, said, “We have really enjoyed our second planting season, despite plenty of weather related setbacks. I do hope that we have helped the volunteers learn more about this iconic bird and encouraged people to get involved in black grouse conservation. Establishing trees can be a long process in these upland habitats but in time we will see some really beneficial pockets of woodland emerging for black grouse.”


Photocaption: Despite the freezing conditions students from Newton Rigg College in Penrith, who are studying Level 3 Countryside and Game Management applied themselves enthusiastically to the task of helping to create wood for black grouse this winter.


Notes to editors

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is an independent wildlife conservation charity which has carried out scientific research into Britain’s game and wildlife for the past 70 years. 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, fish 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. For Information, contact: Morag Walker – Head of Media, Telephone – 01425-652381 (direct 01425-651000) Mobile – 07736-124097    www.gwct.org.uk


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.


About the Woodland Trust

The Woodland Trust is the UK’s leading woodland conservation charity championing native woods and trees. It has more than 500,000 members and supporters and its three key aims are: i) to enable the creation of more native woods and places rich in trees ii) to protect native woods, trees and their wildlife for the future iii) to inspire everyone to enjoy and value woods and trees. Established in 1972, the Woodland Trust now has over 1,200 sites in its care covering approximately 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres). Access to all Woodland Trust sites is free.

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