The Famous Grouse and RSPB Scotland have partnered to save nature for over a decade. The launch of a new whisky, The Black Grouse (now known as The Famous Grouse Smoky Black) in 2008 sparked the collaboration where funds generated from sales were donated to help to save one of the UK’s most threatened species (and the namesake of the whisky) – the black grouse.

This partnership improved habitat for black grouse across seven RSPB reserves: Abernethy, Crannach, Corrimony, Inversnaid and Wood of Cree in Scotland, Lake Vyrnwy in Wales and Geltsdale in England. This included the planting of 185,000 trees and the improvement of more than 85,000 acres of habitat for black grouse.

The current partnership sees The Famous Grouse supporting habitat restoration at RSPB Abernethy – a reserve which is home to all of Scotland’s resident grouse species (capercaillie, ptarmigan, red grouse and black grouse). Spanning three years, the work is focussing on three key areas – woodland expansion, peatland restoration and improving biodiversity on the forest floor (or field-layer management). This kind of habitat recovery work is vital in the face of the decline of Scotland’s biodiversity.

Whilst the Caledonian pine forest is what usually springs to mind when thinking of trees at Abernethy, the Montane Willow Rescue Project aims to protect and restore remnant patches of a rare high-altitude woodland habitat. Montane willow (which consists of several species including downy willow, whortle willow and tea leaved willow) grows at around 800m above sea level and is now mainly confined to small patches on inaccessible mountain ledges. This work is part of the LIFE 100% for Nature project and supported by The Famous Grouse. Young trees are grown from local seeds in the Abernethy Tree Nursery, then planted out in suitable locations on the reserve. The hope is that this will safeguard the future of this rare mountain habitat, and the species such as ptarmigan and dotterel that live there.

Peatlands cover only 3% of the world’s surface, but store 30% of its soil carbon, making protecting them one of the most important nature-based solutions to the climate crisis. Healthy peatlands also provide drinking water filtration, important flood mitigation and are important habitats for rare and threatened wildlife. Only 20% of the UK’s peatlands are in ‘near natural’ state, and degraded peatlands actively leach carbon into the atmosphere. Through funding from The Famous Grouse and Peatland ACTION, RSPB Scotland are working to restore damaged peatland within Abernethy. Returning this important habitat to favourable condition will benefit the biodiversity that thrives there, including the carnivorous sundew plant and golden plover.

A small mushroom growing up from the forest floor, surrounded by vegetation.

A small mushroom surrounded by blaeberry, springing up in a cut area of the forest.

The ground vegetation on the Abernethy forest floor (also known as field-layer) is particularly important for the breeding success of capercaillie, and the biodiversity of the forest as a whole. Small scale trials have shown that grazing and cutting the dense undergrowth allows an increased abundance of small invertebrates and blaeberry, which are important foods for capercaillie chicks. The Large-Scale Field-Layer Disturbance Management Trial (which is also part of LIFE 100% for Nature and supported by The Famous Grouse) will trial two different management techniques at the same time.

A view of the forest with cattle grazing.

Cattle grazing in the forest. How many can you spot?

One 200ha plot will be grazed by cattle, where their trampling and dung will break up the undergrowth. Before their extinction, aurochs would have wandered the forest and had a similar effect on the field layer. The hope is that this behaviour will improve biodiversity by stopping the heather growing so densely that it out-competes all other plantlife. Another plot will be cut by a remote-controlled mower, called a Robocutter, which can break through the densest of undergrowth.

A large yellow tractor-like machine cutting vegetation in the forest.

The Robocutter at work.

It was this work that the team from The Famous Grouse were taken to see on a recent trip to Abernethy, and they were excited to be involved in such an innovative project. They saw capercaillie dust baths that were in areas which have been opened up by the grazing, demonstrating that capercaillie were already benefitting from the cattle’s behaviour. In the areas where the Robocutter had been at work the gains for biodiversity were plain to see. Instead of the densely grown carpet heather in the uncut areas, the opened field layer had a variety of fungi and plant life springing forth, most notably an abundance blaeberry, which will be hugely important for future capercaillie broods.  

A patch of exposed sandy soil under the roots of a tree

Capercaillie dust bath.

Long term corporate partnerships such as that with The Famous Grouse are incredibly valuable to RSPB Scotland. In a relationship spanning over 13 years they have contributed significantly to saving Scotland’s wild places, and RSPB Scotland are tremendously grateful for their support.

Joakim Leijon, Global Head of Marketing for The Famous Grouse, said “The Famous Grouse is a keen supporter of RSPB Scotland and is immensely proud all the great conservation work they’ve been doing at Abernethy. It’s our hope that initiatives like our project together in the region will help to protect what we see as ‘Grouse Country’ for future generations”