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Walls of Death

Bird On! News
2nd September 1996

Black Grouse season opened on 20 August. This bird is the bigger woodland cousin of the moorland Red Grouse. However many estates have a voluntary ban on shooting the birds because of a disastrous long-term decline in this species. The continuing deaths which are causing much of the decline in many areas are because of flying accidents. The use of tall deer fences to protect newly planted trees, and areas for natural regeneration, are walls of death for these spectacular gamebirds.

They fly fast and low and are equipped to blast their way through the outer branches of trees without damage. Strands of wire, or wire netting, are a different matter. It has become clear, over the last few years, that these fences are largely responsible the nationwide decline of Black Grouse. Its magnificent and much rarer cousin, the Capercaillie, is even more seriously affected and the fences are also damaging Red Grouse. The over-grazing by deer of woodland over much of the uplands is a very real problem. However the deer fences are a terrible death-dealing intrusion into the woodland grouse habitat. Breeding bird atlas work by the British Trust for Ornithology showed a 28% contraction in Black Grouse distribution and a staggering 64% in Capercaillie over just 25 years. The over-grazing by deer also severely damages the grouse habitat.

David Baines, of the Game Conservancy, who has studied both Black Grouse and Capercaillie intensively for the last seven years said

'Landowners should take a very careful look at their fencing strategies. Where deer access to areas has to be restricted we are experimenting with florescent streamers to warn the grouse of the presence of the wire. Preliminary results show the problem is not cured but we hope it may be reduced significantly. Our recommendations should be ready next year.'

The cock birds of both species are magnificent. Both have been quarry species for shooters for centuries and the Capercaillie had to be re- introduced from Sweden about 150 years ago after becoming extinct about 1785. The Black Grouse used to be widespread even on the Surrey heathlands and in Norfolk but is now restricted to highland areas of Scotland and is now quite rare in Northern England and in Wales. Both woodland grouse have display grounds, called 'leks', where the males, much bigger than the females, come together. Here the big black and white cocks strut up and down with explosions of noise. The huge Capercaillie cocks, weighing as much as 10lbs, have one series of calls which sounds uncannily like a champagne cork popping and the glugs of a glass being filled!

Steps have been taken to reduce the amount of fencing in some special areas. Volunteers have cleared several kilometres of old, internal fencing from the Glen Affric Caledonian Forest Reserve, run by Forest Enterprise, in Highland. Grants may be available from the Forest Authority for clearing away redundant fences where they are damaging woodland grouse. However the majority of grant schemes for new forestry work still include the erection of deer fences to protect the young trees.

The fences cost 6 per metre and the business of putting them up, largely paid for by grants from the public purse, must be worth tens of millions of pounds each year. Ian Collier, of the Forest Authority, commented

'It would be irresponsible of us to grant-aid forestry plantations in areas with large numbers of deer and know the new trees would be eaten. However we take every chance of reducing the by-kill of woodland grouse in our dealing with owners - particularly on the exact placement of the fences and through encouraging them to control deer numbers in liaison with the Red Deer Commission. The real problem is with the deer themselves. A reduction of their numbers to sensible levels would virtually eliminate the damage to young trees as there would be sufficient grazing on plants they prefer left to satisfy them all.'

Hi tech solutions are being tried. These include the use of powerful electric fences in conjunction with lower wire fences which are not such a hazard to the Grouse. The deer would normally easily jump the low fences but get a shock just as they make ready to leap it. At the RSPB Abernethy reserve only a short length of deer fence on the boundary remains. On this one estate forty kilometres have been removed. Desmond Dugan, the reserve warden and life-long grouse enthusiast, said

'One four and half kms stretch of the boundary has had 33 recorded bird collisions in seven months. The vast majority of these were Black Grouse and Capercaillie. However within the reserve, where the internal fences have gone, both species are thriving. There are now more lekking male Black Grouse, on this one conservation estate, than the whole of Wales where it used to be widespread only a generation ago.'

These results may well imply that 10,000 or more woodland grouse, whose breeding population in Britain probably numbers less than 50,000 individuals, are killed against deer fences each year. In addition birds die against barbed wire stock fences and against overhead cables. These figures are much higher than the numbers which are now being shot each year. The last word on this tragic situation must go to Jimmy Oswald, retired now after being a keeper for 50 years. He has known the Capercaillie and Black Grouse of Deeside since before deer fences became common. On the day before the season for Black Grouse shooting opened, he said

'The studies of these woodland grouse show that fences kill as many as a third of the birds each year. This is a British problem, and a national disgrace, because deer fences are not normally used in the rest of Europe. Within ten years, unless something drastic is done immediately, the Capercaillie will be extinct once more on Deeside. And I very much fear that the Black Grouse would not remain with us much longer.'

The facts are known. Conservationists, foresters and sportsmen need to agree a sensible course of action in the very near future or these birds will become extinct in Britain.

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