Black grouse fall victim to harshest winter for 30 years

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The harshest winter for 30 years has halved the number of rare black grouse in northern England, scientists have found.

Populations of the endangered birds have dropped to their lowest recorded level, according to recent monitoring carried out by scientists from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust.

Numbers of black grouse in England had recovered from 773 males in 1998 to a peak of 1,200 males in 2007, but two successive poor breeding years in 2007 and 2008 reduced numbers to 730 males in spring 2009. Numbers have subsequently halved to 400 males following last winter.

Visiting their traditional "lek" sites, where black grouse carry out a spectacular mating ritual, Dr Phil Warren, a Trust research scientist, has been counting the birds to see how badly they have been affected by the freezing conditions and deep snow. "The past two wet summers have badly affected the breeding success and this has been compounded by appalling conditions this winter," he said.

Furthermore, the Trust warned that an isolated black grouse population in north-west Northumberland, which was already on the edge of extinction, now has just 15 males and will vanish unless major steps are taken immediately to help the birds.