Occasionally you will be walking among the heather on some lonely hillside when suddenly the ground explodes and once your heart has stopped pounding you will see a grouse scudding across the moorside. Alternatively the silence of the heather moor will be broken by a guttural call that seems to be saying, “come out, come out, come out,” then if you are lucky you will spot a red head poking above the heather. By this time the dog has also spotted it and has gone haring off in a useless chase that normally ends up in it sprawling head long into the thick, wiry heather. On Dartmoor, probably the best place to see or hear the grouse is on Hambledon Ridge, nearly every time I have been up there they have been in attendance.
There are two types of grouse on Dartmoor, the Black Grouse (Tetrao tetrix) and the Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus), although out of the two it is the Red Grouse that you are more likely to see. In Smaldon’s opinion (2005, pp. 70 – 71) the Black Grouse was indigenous to Dartmoor but by the early 1800’s various writers were commenting on the decline in their numbers, an example being:
“Tétrao Tètrix, Black Grouse. This is the only Devonshire species of grouse. They were formerly abundant on the borders of Dartmoor and Exmoor; but the increase of population and cultivation has diminished their range. Specimens are still, however, often procured. I have purchased both the male and female in Plymouth Market “, (Moor, 1837, p. 228).
In 1848 Samuel Rowe (1985, p.345) comments on the Black Grouse or Heath Poult saying:
“Some still remain in spite of much persecution. Sir Robert Torrens for some time preserved this fine bird. It would be a very good thing if the Duchy authorities would make a charge for a game license, and devote the money thus raised to the payment of two or three keepers to protect the game. There is a great deal of poaching and too many lurchers are kept in the moorland villages just now“.
Sir Robert Torrens actually held shooting rights which went from the West Dart and the Swincombe, down to Plym Head, Fish Lake Foot and the river Avon, on to the northern boundary of Huntingdon Warren and the West Wellabrook and the lands of Holne manor, (Crossing, 1966, p.94). This basically encompassed a great deal of the south moor and his reason for ‘preservation’ was to stock his shoot.
Today it is an extremely rare sight to see the Black Cock on Dartmoor and according to Smaldon (p.71)one of the last reported sighting of the bird was on the 26th of April 2005 at Kitty Tor. The first record of a sighting of six Black Grouse was in the valley of the Plym in 1917 and during the mid 1900s both this valley and the south moor was home to a fairly large local population of birds. He suggests that some of these birds may well have originated from the early indigenous population which was thought to have been centred on southern Dartmoor. There were also some early recordings of Black Cock on the north moor and around Fernworthy with a well established ‘lek’ or mating site on Assycombe Hill which was in use during the 1920s and continued being used into the early 1950’s (p.70). A similar site was known to have existed on nearby Merripit Hill throughout the 1940’s with the last recorded sighting in the area being made in 1953. In the late 1940’s 25 birds were released in and around the Bellever plantations which resulted in a lek being established in the fields to the west of what is now the Youth Hostel, formerly the Duchy farm. At its height this lek held around seven displaying males but the local population fell dramatically in the 1950s with the last of their numbers being shot by forestry staff. The last recorded Black Grouse at Bellever was in 1954.
So what led to the decline of the Black Grouse on Dartmoor? Firstly, as Rowe mentioned the bird was subjected to a great deal of poaching, probably by miners and peat cutters who worked on the heather moors. In a way it is the grouses’ natural reaction to danger that made it an easy target for poachers as when danger threatens, especially in young birds, their natural reaction is to crouch low in the vegetation and sit perfectly still. It is only at the last moment they will attempt to fly away which is when the dogs would catch them. A task made much easier by their slow, cumbersome flight speed, this also made them simple targets for anyone with a gun. The males also have the habit of sitting in high vantage points such as walls or the tops of bushes, again a simple target for the hunter. Another cause of decline would have been the increase in livestock numbers on the moor which along with heavy swaling led to a loss of heather which is the grouse’s natural habitat.
Spot the Grouse – Hameldown
The other species of grouse on Dartmoor is the Red Grouse and it is this bird that can be seen today. It is thought that the Red Grouse was not an indigenous bird to the moor and was introduced sometime in the early 1900s for the purpose of shooting. Douglas (St. Leger) Gordon (1933, pp. 56 – 65) relates how in 1912 a hundred pairs of Red Grouse were re-introduced onto various parts of Dartmoor. Eight years later the Duchy stated that the birds had established themselves very well and were predominant on the eastern side of the moor. They also noted that it would probably be another three years before the Prince of Wales held any shooting parties. In 1921 the following appeared in The Times newspaper:
“… The Dartmoor experiment was made some eight years ago, when 100 brace were settled on the moors, where they have bred so well that to-day there is a good number of covies. The Dartmoor grouse has more foxes to contend with than on most preserves, but probably not so many hooded crows or badly fed collies, the most destructive of all moorland vermin. Peregrine Flacons and golden eagles, though not unknown in the West Country are rarer than in the North. Again Dartmoor grouse will not be buried by the heavy snowfalls of Highland springs, when the poor hen is sometimes found on her eggs asphyxiated by the absence of air under the closely packed snow“.
Another hundred pairs were released shortly after but coincided with a large increase in the sheep numbers on the moor. This along with heavy swaling led to the destruction of much of the heather and led to a down turn in the thriving grouse numbers. Eventually the Duchy of Cornwall dropped all plans to hold grouse shoots on Dartmoor as the decline in numbers hardly made them worth while. Since the 1930s the Red Grouse population has declined with annual fluctuations coinciding with the heather loss which again is linked with swaling. In 1979 a complete survey of Dartmoor revealed 57 pairs of which 33 were deemed as breeding pairs. According to the Dartmoor National Park Authority’s website there are presently between 70 and 100 breeding pairs of Red Grouse on the moor. This number is said to be declining and if the frequency in which they update their website is anything to go by the bird is probably now extinct or only to be seen on the label of a whisky bottle. A MOD survey carried out in 2006 on the north moor ranges estimated that there were 27 pairs of Red Grouse on the ranges with a total population of 46 pairs on the entire north moor. This population has been classified as, “relatively stable”, and the survey also notes that Dartmoor is on the southerly edge of the Red Grouse’s European range. It was suggested that on the northern ranges the average density of Red Grouse per square kilometre was 0. 456. with 19 confirmed territories found. To put this into context, it is reckoned that the Red Grouse population for the British Isle is around 154,700 birds. The north moor is considered to have 27 pairs which equated to 0.03% of the national population. If you would like to see the complete MOD survey click – HERE.
So, next time the earth explodes beneath your feet and you see a brown bird whirring off into the distance you will know that you have just met one of the 140 odd Red Grouse that still hang on around the moor. Which statistically means that you have just had a rare sighting.
Crossing, W. 1966 The Dartmoor Worker, David & Charles, Newton Abbot.
Gordon, G. 1933 Dartmoor in all its Moods, Murray, London.
Moor, E. 1837 Climbing and Gallinaceous Birds of Devonshire, Magazine of Natural History.
Rowe, S. 1985 A perambulation of Dartmoor, Devon Books, Exeter.
Smaldon, R. 2005 The Birds of Dartmoor, Isabelline Books, Falmouth.