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Joining forces to aid black grouse

Friday 18 July 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who is not readily given to praising Government initiatives in the countryside, describes how some often disparate bodies got together the bring back the black grouse to its traditional homelands in the Yorkshire Dales

REGULAR readers will no doubt be aware that I have a pretty jaundiced view of most Government initiatives when it comes to rural affairs. Most modern politicians know less about the countryside than my dog – who has been dead for ten years – and many of the projects they launch tend to end, at best, in tears and, at worst, in utter disaster.

But hiding away in the long grass, there are still some Government scientists and officials who continue to do a very good job indeed, in spite of interference from Whitehall and Westminster, and one of their better projects is to be launched in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales next week.

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Joining forces to aid black grouse
Photo: Andy Rouse

It is a plan to restore the native black grouse to its rightful place as a common species of the high moorlands after decades of teetering on the verge of extinction and it is being done as a Defra-backed “biodiversity action plan.”

Now phrases like that mostly give me cause to yawn – or even titter. They come straight from the mouths of the spin doctors and often do just that: spin hopelessly out of control until they crash to earth, to burn and be forgotten.

In fact, the whole idea behind various biodiversity schemes – and there are dozens of them – is based on sound science. For some years ago, it was realised that a diverse wildlife – whether it be mammal, bird, plant or insect – was a sound indicator that the local habitat was in good shape.

Any countryman could have told them that yonks ago but let’s not be churlish: the fact that this is now official policy is good news for the countryside. And this takes us to the North Pennines Black Grouse Recovery Project, which will be launched at Reeth in Swaledale this coming Tuesday, July 22 (See News, Tuesday).

The black grouse, a bird about the size of a pheasant, was common throughout Britain until the last century. One of its regular courting places, it was said, was on the top of Bournemouth Town Hall, but it was particularly numerous on the high moorlands of Northern England, Scotland and Wales...

It should not be confused with its cousin the red grouse, which is bred for shooting, and it had been in decline in England for decades – so much so that Yorkshire shooting estates have a self-imposed moratorium on shooting one and can impose fines of anything up to £500 on any shooter who downs a black grouse by accident.

The mere fact that this disparate bunch of organisations has got together to bring back a threatened species the Yorkshire Dales is a matter of great
significance.

For ten years now, scientists and gamekeepers have been re-introducing the species to the moors of the Northern Pennines with such success that they now want to encourage it to re-colonise its old hunting grounds in the south and west Yorkshire Dales – hence next week’s gathering in Swaledale.

Now this is good news in its own right. Even better news, for me, is the organisations which got together – in spite of apparent differences – to make this happen. The lead was taken by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, which represents grouse moor owners and game shooters – the sort of lobby often under attack by the animal rights lobby.

But they went into partnership with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which one would think would be a violently opponent of people who shoot birds for sport. The key here is that the RSPB recognises that areas like grouse moors need to be managed by man for the benefit, not only of game birds, but of other species like curlews and cross bills.

Also contributing to this biodiversity action plan are Natural England, the Ministry of Defence, which has major training grounds on the high moors, Northumbrian Water, the North Pennines AONB Partnership, and the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.

The mere fact that this disparate bunch of organisations has got together to bring back a threatened species the Yorkshire Dales is a matter of great significance. A few years ago, the cynic in me would have dismissed the announcement of such a project as just more spin. To see it working offers hope for the future that all is not yet lost in the English countryside.

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