One day last week I was able to have a look at our Geltsdale nature reserve whilst chatting over policy matters with some visitors. 

Meeting people out in the countryside often makes for a better discussion than being cooped up in an office, it gives us a chance to show people what we are doing on the ground and I, personally, always learn things from seeing things actually happening and talking about them on site.

We talked about hen harriers and the problems they create for grouse moor owners (there is no doubt that hen harriers eat grouse chicks alongside their more common food of skylarks, meadow pipits and voles) and of the problems that some grouse moor managers create for hen harriers (there is, similarly, no doubt that a lot of illegal killing of hen harriers is practised on grouse moors).  This subject is a tricky one, and resolution of it is not looking at all imminent.

But as we talked, we saw plenty of curlews, redshank and lapwings which appeared to have young.  A snipe drummed above our heads.  A stonechat was singing nearby.  A brood of fledged ring ousels flew around the path as we walked up hill.

But there was one bird which we did not see - and I had hoped we would.  And that is the black grouse.

Our management at Geltsdale has gradually increased black grouse numbers over the years.  We have maintained the level of predator control which existed when we took over land management there - some crows and foxes are killed.  But I think that the large-scale land management which we have instigated is also showing signs of working.  We have decreased the grazing pressure on the land and switched to an organic grazing system, we are using more cattle and fewer sheep, and we have planted tens of thousands of trees to re-clothe the sides of streams and gullies with native trees.  All of these measures should help black grouse - but many of them may take many years to work - things happen slowly in the uplands.

In our discussions, before getting out on the hill, we had discussed the fact that over most of the north of England black grouse numbers appear to have crashed since last year.  This is despite the fact that last year appeared to be quite a good breeding season - usually a good sign for the next year.  The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (with us the joint 'Lead Partners' for action on this threatened species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan) issued a press release on this subject entitled 'Severe winter halves black grouse numbers'.

And so, although I was disappointed that we saw no black grouse on our brief visit, I was delighted to hear that on our land, black grouse numbers have doubled since last year despite the bad news from lots of other sites.  At Geltsdale, the counts of males at their spring gathering sites have gone up from 18 last year to 39 this year - that is an impressive increase.  Now the black grouse is a tricky species - its numbers can go up and down a lot between years in ways that are only sometimes explicable - so the value of your black grouse population can go down as well as up.  But it's obviously heartening that 'our' black grouse have done so well.

The GWCT release suggests that proximity to native woodland might be important in allowing black grouse to survive hard winters - that might explain why we seem to have bucked the trend - all that tree-planting and habitat work may be paying off.  It's certainly too early to be sure, but let's hope that we are doing the right things!

  • Lazywell - fair question.  Yes we did come in for some undeserved stick - we often do!  But wader numbers are going up at Geltsdale.  Certainly lots there when I visited.

  • Yes, delighted to hear that the black grouse numbers at Geltsdale are somehow bucking the national trend. What about the wader populations there? I seem to remember a couple of years ago you came in for a bit of stick as a survey by Natural England showed that Geltsdale fared much worse than other upland estates nearby, notably in relation to lapwing, golden plover and curlew. Do I take it from what you saw the other day that their numbers are going up now too?

  • Mark, Geltsdale is a wonderful reserve, well done on Grouse numbers.  Bob