RSPB Scotland has been counting black grouse in and around Corrimony nature reserve for 21 years, and we have seen steady growth in numbers in that time. Site Manager Simon Mclaughlin talks about the important habitat and what is being done to support black grouse.

Black grouse at RSPB Corrimony: 21 years and counting

As an important habitat for Britain’s remaining black grouse and, after celebrating its 21st birthday in April, RSPB Scotland’s Corrimony nature reserve has recently come of age.

I have had the privilege of working on this beautiful reserve for over nine years, taking the helm from previous site managers Dave Ohara (1997-2003) and Dan Tomes (2003-2009). Across the UK, black grouse are a vital indicator of habitat health, which makes them a primary focus for RSPB Scotland’s ongoing reserve management plans.

As you may already know, black grouse are a year-round UK resident bird which specialises in upland fringe habitats associated with young developing trees and woodlands, along with open heather and boggy ground habitats. Corrimony nature reserve can offer all the above and it is here that you can see black grouse perform a rather impressive display known as lekking (a Scandinavian word meaning to play). This takes place every morning between the months of September and June on an arena known as a lek. The lek tends to be a prominent feature in the landscape where several birds – as many as 20 – perform this ritual. I repeat… every morning. Even in the harshest of winter months, they can be seen strutting through the snow without fail.

Black grouse lekking
Black grouse lekking. Photo Credit: Nigel Moore

This lekking display is quite useful for me when it comes to recording numbers, as I can assess how the population is faring. RSPB Scotland have been counting black grouse in and around Corrimony nature reserve every April and May for the last 21 years. As the graph shows, the numbers are steadily increasing, from 16 lekking males when the RSPB acquired Corrimony in 1997 to 58 lekking males in 2018, the highest total number on Corrimony within the last 21 years.

Black Grouse on Corrimony graph - 1997 to 2018
Black Grouse on Corrimony graph - 1997 to 2018

This increase is most likely down to our changes in habitat management and wider habitat improvements including changes in grazing pressure and movement. The cumulative effect of this allows the heather field layer to grow taller, subsequently increasing the variety of food available such as blaeberry (known as bilberry in other parts of the UK), cowberry and bearberry to name but a few. These management methods would not have been possible without the support from The Famous Grouse who, through an ongoing, 10-year partnership with the RSPB, have raised over £650,000 to conserve their flagship species. This rewarding partnership has, to date, enabled the charity to deliver work across seven reserves and 85,000 acres of land including planting 185,000 trees, marking deer fences to avoid collisions and mowing 75 acres of heather. 

Grazing continues to play a vital part in the ongoing management on RSPB Scotland’s Corrimony nature reserve. A new Deer Management Plan and Woodland Grazing Plan will play a pivotal role in how the reserve continues to be managed, with a focus on allowing a variety of young, native tree species to establish via seedling regeneration and planting.

This upcoming winter sees the final phase of three years of peatland restoration work which has been funded by Scottish Natural Heritage Peatland Action. This vital work will help with wider carbon accumulation and flood alleviation, not to mention the direct benefit it has in improving habitats favoured by black grouse, especially during the breeding season in May and June.

Winter 2019/20 will see further forest plantation restructuring work. This continues our previous six years of woodland restructuring which has allowed black grouse to flourish on the reserve. Aside from this enigmatic species, our work has benefitted other important birds such as spotted flycatchers, wood warblers and tree pipits. I look forward to seeing how the ecosystem will adapt to our changes over the next few years and am proud to be making a difference in this beautiful part of the highlands that I call home.

Find out more about black grouse here