Grouse Surveys in Norway and Scotland – 2017

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Gareth Mason, Forest Enterprise Scotland

Introduction

Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) and black grouse (Tetrao tetrix) are red-listed species of high conservation concern in the UK. Following their extinction in the UK in the late 18th century due to loss of habitat and over hunting, several birds were introduced from Sweden in the 1830’s (Cady, 1996). Despite being widespread and so common across much of northern Europe that they are hunted annually, in the UK they remain threatened. Survey results from 2012 show the Capercaillie population in Scotland to be around 1200 individuals (Ewing et al., 2012) whilst the last black grouse survey in 2005 estimated the population to be around 5000. In Norway, for the 2015/16 hunting season the total bags for caper and grouse respectively were 4,600 and 13,150 (ssb.no, 2017). Even taking in to consideration the size of Norway and the excellent habitat for all grouse species there, this is clearly quite a difference!

Legal status and protection for grouse species differs between Norway and the UK too, with Norway not being a member of the EU, its wildlife is protected by the Norwegian Wildlife Act (1981) which states ‘Wildlife and the habitats of wildlife shall be managed in such a way that the productivity of nature and the diversity of species be preserved’. Capercaillie, black grouse, and other grouse species are all important game birds in Norway where the hunting culture is very strong, with around 15% of the population registered as hunters, although this number increases greatly in rural areas. The open season for grouse is mid-August until Christmas, and it is in the interests of landowners who have grouse present to ensure the population is healthy and hunting sustainable as it is such an important part of the Norwegian lifestyle to be able to hunt, provide income, and unlike the UK, a food source; we were told on one of our first days that Norway’s relationship with hunting is one of a “meat culture, not trophy culture”.

Capercaillie and black grouse in the UK are protected by the UK the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1959) with capercaillie afforded further protection under the EC Birds Directive (2009/147/EC) and a suite of Special Protection Areas (SPA’s). Red grouse in Scotland are shot for sport on large estates, mostly in the Scottish Highlands, where high prices are paid for the privilege of doing so. Unlike in Norway, where cull and quota numbers are freely available to the public, this information is only given out by estates for a fee. Some grouse are eaten on traditional estates as part of the post sport banquet, but the vast majority of the shot birds are sold to game dealers. The emphasis here is on sport shooting for fun, or ‘trophy culture, not meat culture’.

Grouse Surveys in Scotland and Norway

Due to declining populations across the UK, there has been significant effort put in to population monitoring of grouse species. Nationally, a population survey is carried out every ten years; however there are several Study Groups that undertake annual surveys of black grouse leks during the peak lekking season of early spring. Tay Forest District falls within one such study area, the Perthshire Black Grouse Study Group (PBGSG), so I am lucky enough to take part in this survey each year. The PBGSG has monitored the black grouse population in Perthshire since 1990; a group of volunteers count all the black grouse within seven 10 km squares (70,000Ha). This work has been essential understanding the importance of the Perthshire population and contributes to conservation measures for black grouse. Despite national declines in the black grouse population, the Perthshire population has bounced back and the area is now a stronghold for this species. The protocol is to survey known lek sites and count the number of lekking males, and any females seen. The survey runs from mid-April – mid-May, with a minimum of two visits required, usually an hour before dawn but certainly no later than 7am. Weather conditions also have to be suitable, with a dry, calm morning with good visibility the ideal scenario…not always possible in early highland springtime!

The data from PBGSG in 2015 and 2016 is shown below. There was a drop in numbers from between 2015/16 but the overall trend is an increase and early results from 2017 show numbers are up from last year, with a lek I had nothing on for 2 years now having at least 3 males present.

Figure 1. Typical view of a Perthshire lek.

The 2016 survey was carried out by 32 volunteers from a reasonably broad range of organisations including local birdwatchers, Atholl Estate staff, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust staff and students, FCS/FES, SNH and RSPB Scotland staff. Five volunteers have been involved in counting since the study group was founded in 1990.

Table 1 Comparison of 2015 and 2016 results. (PBGSG, 2016)

  In Norway, there is an annual monitoring programme of all grouse species that covers much of the country. Started in 2013, the Hønsefugl Portalen is a largescale partnership between NINA (Norwegian Institute for Nature Research), FeFo (a landowner enterprise in Finnmark, Northern Norway), Statskog (State landowner), Miljødirektoratet (Norwegian Environement Agency), HINT (Nordtrondelag University), Norges Fjellstyresamband (Norwegian Mountain Board who administer hunting rights on crown land) and Hedmark University. The initial project began in the 1950’s, walking transects and counting flushed birds, using the distance counting statistical method. It is now a web-based portal for monitoring both public and private land.

         http://honsefugl.nina.no/Innsyn/

It is a voluntary survey with exceptional levels of buy in from across a wide range of disciplines – hunters, managers, landowners, research groups and members of the public, all with different interests. There are 3 work packages involved with the project; Trial, Analysis, and then Regional & National Population Estimates.

As with other hunting quarry, the cull quota is set by such population surveys so it is in the interests of many people to carry out the survey themselves so that correct quotas can be set locally, rather than dictated by the government in Oslo. Many hunters also use this time before the hunting season to train their dogs off lead to flush birds, for which the transect survey is perfect. Despite being a relatively new system, building from a paper based one, it has been very successful so far with regular users finding it encouraging to see ‘their’ data and transect information, data analysis easily flagging up suspect data and what may be causing it (deviation from the transect line, bias), and there are plans underway to move to a smartphone app which will allow even easier data input and real-time information to both the surveyors and project. All population data is freely available via the website. For the 2016 survey season:

  • 180 sites across 81 municipalities covered
  • 2537 lines, covering 7853km
  • 5712 observations
  • 25,279 grouse (all species)

Figure 2. Municipalities covered by 2016 survey. (Honsefugl.nina.no, 2017)

Nest Predation

Two recurring themes of our visit to Norway were that we should not be re-introducing lynx, and that we should be controlling pine marten. The former was seen to be opening a Pandora’s Box of management issues in relation to sheep predation, the latter was suggested to be the main reason our grouse populations have plummeted. Torfinn Jahren is undertaking his PhD research aimed at further understanding the reasons for declines in black grouse and capercaillie. The main focus of Torfinn’s study is nest monitoring using trailcams. Between 2009-15 over 430 nest sites were found, primarily using pointing dogs but also from records sent in by forestry workers, land managers and the general public. Once located, nests were then monitored using the remote cameras placed 1.5-5m from the nest, and set up for time-lapse photography to take a photo at 3 minute intervals. The photos were then analysed and nests classified as either failed or hatched. The results of this study showed that <5% of failed nests were due to any reason other than predation.

The species recorded predating the nests were:

  • Pine marten (Martes martes)
  • Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)
  • Wolverine (Gulo gulo)
  • Badger (Meles meles)
  • Lynx (Lynx lynx)
  • Ravens and crows (Corvus sp.)

Corvid predation only occurred on abandoned nests, where there was no female present or male nearby to defend and protect the eggs. Badgers did not kill females on the nests but were occasionally successful at predating the eggs. Both foxes and pine marten killed adult female birds on the nest. Lynx and wolverine kills were minimal; only 1 lynx was recorded predating a nest, interestingly enough, from within an area supposedly fenced off from predators. Pine marten and fox predation of nests accounted for 84% of predated sites, with the daily probability of nest predation by a pine marten increasing with marten abundance. Fox predation seemed to be related to vole populations i.e. more voles, less eggs predated, whereas marten predation actually increased with vole abundance. The reasons for this are unclear, though may be due to martens being more efficient/specialised nest predators, or that they need eggs to cache for winter. In Scotland, Glenmore and Abernethy forests do not practise the control of foxes or other mammalian predators yet this is where capercaillie have the most stable and productive populations, so it seems to be a more complex picture than simply nest predation affecting grouse populations, in Scotland at least. Sustainable forest management at a large-scale is now commonplace across the country, with all manner of species, including grouse, taken in to consideration from pre-operational checks and annual surveys, to Land Management Plans of whole districts taking in to consideration habitat and biodiversity needs at a landscape level.

Conclusion

It was fascinating and impressive to hear about the grouse surveys that are carried out annually across Norway in such a systematic and engaging way. The buy-in from the volunteers especially is fantastic, as despite the reasons for carrying out the survey being to train hunting dogs and ultimately hunt the birds they are surveying, it is done in a very sustainable manner – if the population is doing well, the quota is increased, and if it drops, then the quota is too, with hunters being acutely aware of how important it is to get the numbers right to allow them their right and pastime of game hunting to continue. It would be a fantastic method to replicate here, perhaps even with the development of a recording app for ad hoc grouse sightings from hillwalkers, to get a better idea of how our populations are doing without the inherent cost and resource implications of the largescale decade interval survey currently used, local Study Group data notwithstanding. It was quite different to see hunting, forestry, conservation and farming all being carried out together, often by the same people. In Scotland, one is usually a forester, a gamekeeper, a conservationist, or farmer, with little crossover between roles, for the most part. Norway, on the whole, seems to have a much more integrated and dynamic balance between conservation and hunting, with almost every species hunted or controlled at some level, but this is only done when the population is sufficiently large enough to support a cull quota; it makes sense to conserve a population until it reaches a level where it can be sustainably managed, but will be a very alien concept to most people in the UK. It is unfortunate in Britain that conservationists and gamekeepers are often too entrenched in their own ideologies and points of view to meet somewhere in the middle to accept a compromise where hunting isn’t necessarily all bad, and wholesale protection of one species isn’t necessarily all good.

References:

Cady, M. (1996). The complete book of British birds. 1st ed. Basingstoke: Automobile Assoc. [u.a.], p.141.

Ewing, S., Eaton, M., Poole, T., Davies, M. and Haysom, S. (2012). The size of the Scottish population of Capercaillie Tetrao urugallus: the result of the fourth national survey. Bird Study, [online] 59(2), pp.126-138. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00063657.2011.652937 [Accessed 13 Jun. 2017].

Honsefugl.nina.no. (2017). Hønsefulgportalen. [online] Available at: http://honsefugl.nina.no/Innsyn/ [Accessed 13 Jun. 2017].

PSBGSG (2016). Perthshire Black Grouse Study Group 2016 Black Grouse Monitoring Report.

ssb.no. (2017). Small game and roe deer hunting, 2015/2016. [online] Available at: https://www.ssb.no/en/jord-skog-jakt-og-fiskeri/statistikker/srjakt/aar[Accessed 13 Jun. 2017].

 

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