Why being a target could be only hope for rarest bird

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The Independent Online
A rescue plan was launched yesterday to help ensure the survival of the black grouse which is suffering one of the fastest rates of decline of any British bird species.

The grouse, which is twice the size of the smaller and much more abundant red grouse, is still legally shot for sport in some parts of the country.

But the very fact that they are still a target could help to save them, argues the Game Conservancy Council.

Numbers have halved since 1989 and there are now about 6,300 males left in Britain.

At dawn yesterday, 24 of them were competing with each other to win females at one of their traditional "lekking" sites in Landgon Beck on the North Pennine moorlands in County Durham.

The males, in full breeding plumage of black with white tails fill the valley with their low, burbling song.

They face up to each other at the lek, dash forwards and leap high in the air, fluttering furiously. The one who puts up the most impressive performance and sees off most rivals wins the most females.

The black grouse has disappeared from all of southern England and there are only about 150 males in Wales. Some 400 are thought to survive in their English stronghold in the North Pennines, with the great bulk of their numbers in Scotland.

They need good quality moorland with a mixture of low shrubs, heather and grass providing plant food and insects for adults and vulnerable chicks. And they need woodland to provide other parts of diet, and shelter in winter. They are birds of the moorland fringe.

The greatest threat to their survival is thought to be the degradation of their habitat, caused mainly by overgrazing by sheep - which is encouraged by European Union subsidies.

The Game Conservancy Trust, English Nature, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Ministry of Defence have combined to create a three-year recovery project which will research and demonstrate methods of land management which boost black grouse numbers. Three army ranges in the region will be used as well as private land.

Julian Murray-Evans of the Game Conservancy Trust said although there was a voluntary moratorium on black grouse shooting in England, some were still killed on estates where the right kind of land management kept the population healthy and stable.

''The possibility of shooting them if their numbers recover gives landowners an incentive to do the things which the black grouse needs,'' he said.