When the Last Grouse Calls

WORDS BY Byron Pace

PHOTOS BY The Pace Brothers

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MODERN HUNTSMAN, VOLUME THREE


Winter can seem lifeless in the icy depths that precede spring. Northerly winds storm south, dragging the Arctic over Scotland, surging across the open vista of our moorland. The heather, now drab and dull, gives and pulls in the face of marching snow and icy showers. Few species brave the unrelenting short days and long nights of the mountains, but some manage to carve out an existence. Soon, the hills will once again be alive, as the snow retreats to pockets of sheltered northern-facing corries. The shrill and repetitive kleep, kleep sound of oyster catchers marks the first glimpses of spring in the lower foothills. Soon their lone call will be joined by the distinctive cry of the curlew, ready to join the red grouse that have been awaiting their return. They have sat out the long winter largely alone, their abundant numbers cultivated by the hand of man. For a time, the seas of heather will also be home to some of the most endangered species in the country, and here they will bid for their future as they produce the next generation.

The ruffed grouse of North America | Photo courtesy of the Ruffed Grouse Society

As we wrestle with the public interest of moorland management and grouse shooting in the UK, great insight can be gained by studying the challenges of grouse-focused habitat in other parts of the world. Do we grasp the gravity of our current responsibility to protect our moorland, and fully comprehend the global importance of this ecosystem? It seems almost every day we face news of another habitat on the brink of irreversible decline; it has become increasingly clear that humans have a critical role in actively managing the landscape, to both restore and prevent further damage to ecosystems. A hands-on management approach has been practiced on grouse moors since the Victorian era, but current political sentiments, and an increasing will to reclaim a more “wild” landscape, move to put an end to a system of management largely supported by science. To understand the implications of this, we must first grasp a little history of the landscape in question, before looking to our American cousins for a view of the future.

The landscape and remaining wildlife in Scotland have been shaped by a long and varied history. As with almost every corner of the planet, the cards on the table now were dealt primarily by the hand of man and little, if any, of the Scotland we enjoy today exists without having been impacted by the choices we made in our past. Much of the expansive Caledonian Forests of native Scots pine, ash, alder and juniper are consigned to the history books, with only pockets surviving our thirst for progression; industries centered around livestock, iron smelting, salt production and construction thrived during the 17th century. We didn’t consider our impact back then, and 100 years prior to the Highland clearances, which would transform the landscape further, legend tells of great forest fires set ablaze to chase out and kill the last of our native wolves. Whether this is true or not is unclear, but nevertheless, the wolf would eventually follow the same fate as the European brown bear and beaver, with the last recorded sightings in 1682. By 1709, they were also extinct in Ireland.

Conflict and war raged in Scotland during this time, with the Battle of Culloden in 1746 arguably the culmination of the period, and the beginning of the end of the traditional Highland way of life. The people left the land, with many who could afford the fare boarding ships to start new lives in North America.

Sheep filled the vacuum where people had once been. Wool and mutton were in high demand, and Blackface Sheep were one of few varieties of livestock to flourish in the harsh, unforgiving, peat-based moorland habitat. It is said that for the next 100 years, the hills were white with sheep, the remaining woodland burnt to the ground to open up further grazing. According to famed and respected gamekeeper Ronnie Rose, the only areas that were spared from this raping of the land were those developed for “sporting purposes.”

The period that followed saw advancements in transport, bridge building and a road network through the Highlands. Cheap labor made managing these remote upland estates a profitable endeavour; their focus set firmly on the harvest of red grouse and the monarch of Scottish sporting history: the red stag. The popularity of this was further encouraged by the purchase of Balmoral Estate by Prince Albert, for Queen Victoria, in 1852. As the crow flies, the southern edge of the estate lies less than 30 miles from where I call home.

The rise of Scottish sporting estates formed the first large-scale management of land with a view to improving habitat for specific wild species. This included the rotational burning of heather moorland for grouse, still practiced today, as well as the cultivation of more fertile valley floors to provide winter fodder for red deer. Many of our mature native woodlands were also planted during this period, helping to provide shelter for deer in a landscape with few havens of sanctuary in bad weather.

A red grouse emerges after a recent controlled burn.

However, some practices at the time were far removed from what would be acceptable today, with the Victorians well known for being ruthless when it came to any wildlife that conflicted with their pursuit of game. While quarry species flourished, the persecution of birds of prey, along with habitat declines primarily resulting from changing agricultural practices, reduced some species to the point of extinction (many of these species have been successfully re-introduced, including white-tailed eagles and red kites).

This period saw successive generations of knowledge and experience gained on the land, with an intimate understanding of the complex relationships shared between the wild beings of the uplands. Sadly, as a result of two World Wars, much of this was lost, with stalkers and gamekeepers from rural communities being called up to the front lines. Most would never return. From then until now, we have also faced an increasing rate of urbanization, and a concerning disconnectedness with the countryside by the larger population. This has led to a situation where gamekeepers who were once revered as guardians of the landscape are now more likely to be held in contempt.

We are seeing the return of the naturalist, and it couldn’t have come too soon.

While modern agriculture still plays a significant role in the precarious future of many species, the modern gamekeeper has become a lynchpin to the scientifically proven success of managing upland areas in particular, and has never been more highly educated or in tune with the intricacies of habitat management and monitoring. Despite the often speculative reports in the media, the days of commonly practiced raptor persecution are long gone, with the pride of most estates lying in the impressive and enviable diversity of species and plants they offer. We are seeing the return of the naturalist, and it couldn’t have come too soon.

This may seem like an excessively long, potted history of Scotland’s upland land management, but it’s important to understand how the landscape was formed. In order to make a decision for future manipulation of habitats, we have to reference a historical baseline to fully appreciate the direction we choose to move in. It is also sensible to consider the parallels in habitat shifts across different locations around the world. Collectively, this will make our knowledge base of experiences superior to that of just the individual country, and it’s disappointing that we don’t consider this more.

My own interest in grouse and their moorland habitats at home is what prompted me to unearth a deeper understanding of North America’s grouse species. The two that connected most with my native interests were the greater sage grouse and ruffed grouse. Although our Scottish history and records reach much further back than the US, the confluence of critical conservation consideration between these new-world grouse habitats and our own is profound.

Today in Scotland, much of the uplands is still managed and funded privately, with a strong focus on grouse and deer, the former enjoying the privilege of being by far more commercially valuable. Tourism, and more recently renewable energies in the form of wind power, make up the other primary uses of our uplands, in addition to the much-reduced presence of sheep farming.

This coincides with vast efforts by estates and their gamekeepers to manage habitats that produce a surplus of grouse to shoot each season. Rotational burning of heather forms a crucial part of this management, providing the essential variation in age structure needed by red grouse for their life cycle. Beyond that, this planned approach for burning helps reduce natural fuel loads, preventing the uncontrolled spread of wildfires across the hills. These burn much hotter, and deep down into the peat, sometimes smouldering away for years. Recent conversations I had with ecologists undertaking peatland restoration locally highlighted the long-term impact of this, with much of the current areas of restoration work resulting from historic wildfires. Without the incentive and economic contribution of grouse shooting, it is hard to see who would take on this responsibility.

Known as muirburn, this controlled and regulated management tool is far removed from the mass agricultural incinerations of previous centuries. Small, controlled, cold burns, strategically planned to be sympathetic to sensitive habitats, benefit not only red grouse, but a multitude of other moorland species. This includes a long list of currently threatened and endangered birds such as red shanks, curlew, golden plover, dotterel, and lapwings, as well as our native blue hare, to name just a few. Although suffering serious declines in other parts of the UK, they are generally thriving and most abundant on managed grouse moors.

To take curlew as just one example, they were shown to have suffered up to a 46% decline across the country between 1994 and 2010. Placed under red status listing in 2015, the curlew is regarded as the bird of greatest conservation concern in the UK. According to the body of science on the subject, its decline can be attributed primarily to increased predation on nesting birds by foxes and mustelids, as well as the loss of suitable habitat through afforestation, urbanization, the modernization of agricultural practices, and changing wetland management. It is no surprise then to find that the current stronghold for curlew lies on managed grouse moors, the surrounding marginal farmland, and areas focused on habitat managed with an eye on predation control.

Unlike the moorland visitors, which enjoy the sanctuary of managed estates during their breeding season, red grouse spend their entire lives in a habitat of upland dwarf shrub heath: a mix of bell and ling heather, cross-leaved heath, bilberries, crowberries, and blueberries, interspersed by areas of blanket bog, rich in sphagnum mosses and cotton grass. This wet, peat-structured ecosystem is considered the most extensive natural habitat in the United Kingdom.

However, it is heather in particular, an icon of the Scottish Highlands, that red grouse rely on most. The wash of purple hues, so vivid and seductive come July, is not only a mesmerising spectacle of great beauty, it is the very life blood of the moorland habitat.

The red grouse of the British Isles (Lagopus lagopus Scotia) shares genus with three other species: the rock ptarmigan (also found in Scotland), the white-tailed ptarmigan, and the willow grouse (Lagopus lagopus Lagopus) of Europe and North America. The red grouse is a subspecies of the willow grouse and has evolved in isolation for an estimated 25,000 years, confining its occurrence only to the British Isles. As a result of this, and its historical decline, it’s currently regarded as a priority species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Yet the current red grouse population in Scotland is thankfully regarded as stable, owing almost entirely to the historical and current interest in the bird as a game species. The population story in much of Wales and Ireland is quite the opposite, with very little sporting management taking place.

Population fluctuations are monitored closely to determine viability for the upcoming season, with year-over-year counts of grouse completed for historically documented locations. By strategically working areas with pointers, coveys of grouse are flushed and recorded, with an area-by-area census of the breeding success building an overall picture that can be compared with previous years. From these statistics, the harvestable surplus can be determined, or in some years, the decision not to shoot at all will be made.

As a measure of just how much we have to be invested in the habitat conservation of every species, even red grouse have shown long-term population declines, despite this widespread effort and resources focused on the species. Populations have slumped significantly since 1911, and have seen a 25% reduction from 1977 to 2002, as shown in the evidence supplied to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee for UK priority species listing. The reasons for this are multi-faceted, but certainly not helped by the 30% loss in moorland habitat between the 1950s and 1980s, with the overgrazing from sheep and inappropriate forestry planting being major contributing factors. At the time it was fashionable to reclaim moorland areas for block Sitka pine plantations, draining vast areas of land regarded as poor quality. Little consideration was made as to the habitat displacement, and many of these plantations failed to produce harvestable crops. Populations of predators have also increased across the board: mammals as well as protected predatory birds. This impact is felt by many species, especially ground-nesting birds.

One of the most devastating impacts of recent decades, however, has been through the viral disease louping ill, transmitted between hosts by ticks. It is estimated that up to one third of grouse moors carry the disease, with the prevalence of ticks throughout the United Kingdom increasing at an alarming rate. Some speculate that warmer winters are a contributing factor, although the impact is not fully understood. Although not all ticks incubate the disease, many areas in Scotland that wouldn’t have carried ticks twenty years ago face severe burdens today. Little, if any, monitoring was in place to follow this spread, with the first occurrence of ticks in a glen lying primarily in the memory of gamekeepers, now in their twilight years. The effects of the disease are considerable, with a mortality rate of up to 80% in infected grouse chicks, leading to overall chick survival rates on moors suffering from louping ill of just 50%. It is no surprise to find that almost every upland estate now blood tests their grouse for the disease, providing crucial monitoring of its spread over time, and the effectiveness of tick reduction methods.

This adds further complications to the management of the species, with the long-term tick control strategy based around limiting host availability. In terms of treatment, the anti-tick medication long used commercially for livestock allows a system of tick-mopping by sheep, and has proven very effective when efficiently undertaken. Although waders don’t seem to contract louping ill, excessive tick burden can be debilitating on young chicks, further making this management a critical element of upland conservation.

Parasitic worms also severely impact the population, with strongyle worm being of primary concern for grouse. Historically this would drive the dramatic boom-and-bust cycles, but the advent of veterinary-supervised medicated grit has improved survival and breeding success. This is laid out at recorded points on moorland suffering from worm burdens, and withdrawn 28 days before the season begins, avoiding any chemical traces in the food chain.

Of course I have focused on only one of the four grouse species found in the United Kingdom. The other three are ptarmigan, black grouse, and the largest, most imposing of the bunch: the capercaillie. All have suffered marked declines over the last 100 years, even with the capercaillie being reintroduced from Scandinavia in the 1830s after becoming extinct in the 1780s. Today, a population a little over 1,000 individuals barely holds on; diminished habitat and the rapid increase of re-introduced pine martens are teaming up as a seemingly unstoppable force against their long-term sustainability. Black grouse, on the other hand, have enjoyed isolated resurgences in recent years, predominantly benefiting from the management and predator control on grouse moors. They are also in the fortunate position of not being affected by the louping ill virus so devastating to red grouse.

Black grouse, or blackcock as they are more often referred to here, are a magnificent bird, not unique to the UK and in fact more widely spread in mainland Europe. While the hens (greyhens) offer little more than a drab tan and brown exterior, the males bluster in shimmering, seemingly translucent blacks and iridescent hues of blue along their backs and necks. Capped with vivid red, engorged wattles above their eyes, the impressiveness of their plumage is only truly apparent when it comes time to lek — their ritualized mating dance. Black grouse remain on the quarry species list, but a voluntary moratorium on their harvest has been in place for many years.

Between the politics of land ownership in Scotland, and of management and disagreements between NGOs, the future of all our grouse is less than certain — not just as a huntable quarry, but in terms of their long-term existence. To understand this, a view across the sea provides more than a little insight.

…there certainly appears to be an increasing acceptance that sagebrush ecosystems need to be managed and protected if they are to survive.

When my brother and I decided to travel to Montana at the beginning of this year, the allure of Yellowstone National Park and the history surrounding it was a major driving force. That said, I was equally excited to lay my eyes on a habitat that has become a pillar of modern conservation concern: the sagebrush ecosystem. I wanted to see it, touch it, smell it, and stand among it. I hadn’t appreciated that I would spend most of my time in Montana surrounded by this remarkable habitat. Every morning, under the wakening stimulation of fresh coffee, I would peer out over swathes of sagebrush-covered lands, disappearing into the horizon toward the looming, jagged peaks of the Beartooth Range. Discussing the concept of this article with our Editor-in-Chief, Tyler Sharp, the very same view inspired our musings. More than any other bird species, the story of sage grouse and their intrinsically linked sagebrush habitat has been elevated to a topic of increasingly common discussion, even over here in Europe. The PR train is steaming, and people are starting to listen.

Sage brush habitat in Montana, USA

As the second largest of the grouse species, only the European capercaillie surpasses the stature of the North American greater sage grouse. Along with our black grouse, all three species form leks as part of their mating rituals, offering majestic communal displays of bravado; dancing with equally imposing orchestral brilliance in an attempt to identify themselves as the dominant breeding male.

Like our native species here, sage grouse have suffered mass declines across North America, but the severity of population crashes has been apparent in very recent history compared to the UK story. In Wyoming alone, the Game and Fish Department recorded a decline from 2006 to 2017 of 26,500 birds, leaving an estimated 18,000 individuals in the state. Add to this the fact that Wyoming has 37% of the world’s population of sage grouse, and the gravity of the issue begins to crystalize.

It is generally accepted that the core and overriding reason for these nation-wide declines has been habitat loss, as indeed is a recurring theme for species the world over. Much in the same way our moorland habitat has contracted in the face of cultivation, the great sagebrush seas that existed when Lewis and Clark first discovered the sage grouse are estimated to cover less than 55% of their 150-million-acre historical range. The sagebrush ecosystem extended to more than half the American West, supporting in excess of 350 associated plant and animal species for the last two million years.

The threats facing sagebrush-associated habitat are varied, including the usual suspects of agricultural improvements, overgrazing, development, and extraction for oil, gas and minerals. The proliferation of invasive grasses and an unnatural, suppressed fire regime are major factors adding to this. Roads and power poles transecting the landscape have also been linked to an increase in rodent and raptor impact on sage grouse themselves, with fence collisions a major and wasteful contributing factor in grouse population reductions. Interest groups including the Sage Grouse Initiative have made inroads here, helping to facilitate the removal or marking of fences based in part on research from Scotland on capercaillie.

However, the overriding current threat of what habitat remains comes from the non-native invasion by cheatgrass at lower levels, and encroachment by native conifers and pinyon-juniper at higher elevations. Whereas historically wildfires would have kept the forest in check, today, fire-suppression practices curtail this natural occurrence, leading to an unnatural fire regime characterized by low-frequency, high-intensity fires. The remaining intact sagebrush ecosystems are being strangled out of existence, and the only conceivable future requires organized, intensive management structures.

Black grouse on a lek in Scotland.

The greater sage grouse may have more in common characteristically with our blackcock and capercaillie, but their reliance on a single-plant ecosystem centered around sagebrush is much more akin to our red grouse and heather moorland. It makes sage grouse a signature species of that habitat, with sagebrush their sole food source through the winter months. In the same way, without the critical food source provided by heather, the red grouse would be no longer. They are the ‘canary in the coalmine’ as to the health of their environment. Yet the attitudes and understanding of the intrinsic value and fragility of these habitats do not run in concert between our two countries.

According to Michael Wisdom of the PNW Research Station, sagebrush is “the most imperiled of all ecosystems in the United States.” From the outside, there certainly appears to be an increasing acceptance that sagebrush ecosystems need to be managed and protected if they are to survive. At higher elevations, this involves intensive management to prevent displacement by trees. This is achieved through prescribed, rotational burning, as well as mechanical intervention to be sympathetic to the fire intolerance of sagebrush. Indeed, this is a form of management not too far removed from what we see in Scotland on our moorlands. Yet here we see increasing resistance to it on many fronts, including by those who wish to see a non-managed landscape supporting more natural regeneration of trees into the uplands.

Reforestation efforts in the last ten years have probably seen more native tree planting than the previous three decades. Facilitated primarily by incentivised schemes and grants, this has been embraced by many sporting-led estates to be sympathetic to their management of moorland — re-populating river banks, low-lying areas and river gulleys reaching out into the upper moorland. However, many people would like to see more, hankering for a perceived wild landscape under the rewilding banner. Added to this, political unrest surrounding all forms of hunting runs rife through the Scottish Parliament, further informing their resolve to shift the historic land custodianship of the country. This leaves me wondering what our uplands would look like if the gamekeepers were gone; if the estates no longer privately funded the moorland for the harvest of grouse and deer.

The single-age structure of forestry is leaving ruffed grouse, golden-winged warblers, woodcock, and a host of other species without a home.

Does it not seem plausible that, much in the same way as progression and displacement currently threaten the sagebrush ecosystem, we too could face the degradation of our heather moorland, an ecosystem where 75% of the global total is found in the United Kingdom? Do we need to travel to the brink of irreversible, as we have seen in the United States, before we realise just how important it is? With so many listed species reliant on heather-based moorland habitat, it seems inconceivable that we would knowingly allow any situation which reduces the viability of its current range.

Ultimately, this conversation comes down to the acknowledgement that humans have altered the landscape to a point where we are now responsible for the management of balance between species and habitats. Certainly where grouse are concerned, it is hard to see a situation where a hands-off approach delivers any kind of desirable outcome.

We don’t have to look far to see more examples of this, with the American ruffed grouse currently following the same trajectory as the sage grouse. They have been “identified as a species of greatest conservation need in nineteen State Wildlife Action Plans,” according to the Ruffed Grouse Society; unfortunately, they are suffering from an unintended consequence of conservation success.

A bird of the stepland savanna and forested regions, they too have been forced to survive in a much-reduced habitat range on the back of historical deforestation. This not only affected ruffed grouse, but all obligates of that ecosystem, including the golden-winged warbler and the wild turkey. But habitat shrinkage is only one part of the story.

Some of this lost habitat was restored by the revolution in conservation concern led by Gifford Pinchot in the early 1900s. A few decades later, under the leadership of Teddy Roosevelt, Congress enacted emergency conservation action, which saw 25,000 men enlisted to work on forestry protection and replanting. The future of ruffed grouse, and the other species which shared their habitat of mixed-age woodland, now looked to be more promising.

Fast forward to the late 1980s, and concerns about the rapid decline of the northern spotted owl began to surface; their demise intrinsically tied to the felling of old-growth forests. At this time, they stood at an estimated 10% of their coverage from 150 years before. The years that followed saw much heated debate and litigation from environmentalist groups, the government and the timber industry, but eventually, in 1990, the northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species. With that came severe restrictions imposed upon the timber industry. This was as much a public relations battle as one of science, and at the time the public support to save the northern spotted owl was unprecedented. Here comes the great irony of that success.

This left a legacy of protectionism when it came to forestry, with a public mindset firmly against any kind of timber harvesting. The result has led to a single-age structure across much of the new-growth forests, now surpassing the 100-year mark. As is also true for the American woodcock, the ruffed grouse requires disturbed, early-successional forests for its life cycle, providing a mix of shelter, forage and breeding habitat.

In the depths of history, with forest expanses covering vast areas of North America and Canada, natural occurrences such as fire and wind blow would have provided the broken, random forest structure needed. But today, with far less land given over to forestry, natural events are statistically less likely to affect forested areas. When they do occur, an active regime of fire suppression is compounded by unnaturally devastating and intense burns due to the high fuel load present. The single-age structure of forestry is leaving ruffed grouse, golden-winged warblers, woodcock, and a host of other species without a home.

Once again it comes down to sensible, planned and scientifically backed management, as is being called for by the Ruffed Grouse Society. Ben Jones, CEO of the organization, explained to me that the optimum age class of habitat lies between five and twenty years. To achieve this, strategic felling and replanting of forests is essential, as outlined by the research undertaken by Gordon Gullion, calling for a checkerboard pattern of age classes throughout forestry. With a 99% decline of ruffed grouse in Indiana since the 1980s, one thing is certain: a lack of action will lead to only one outcome.

In contrast to the conservation work surrounding sage grouse, the timber crop harvested during forest management for ruffed grouse is self-funding. Similarly, the upland management undertaken on sporting estates in the UK is supported by the harvestable surplus through hunting, paid for by those who wish to shoot red grouse, and places no burden on the taxpayer.

It seems an obvious comparison to make, but the mosaic, patchwork pattern of Scotland’s managed heather moorland offers exactly the habitat structure and benefits being sought by the Ruffed Grouse Society. We have long realized the importance of human intervention and sustainable management of the land to this end, and yet it remains a strange dichotomy that while our fight is to hold on to these practices, in North America they long for this structured approach.

I can think of no better way to bring these stories of conservation struggle from around the world together than by leaving you with the words of Aldo Leopold:

“The autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre, yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.”

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