For me the mention of Black Grouse immediately conjures up the picture of a bottle of fairly drinkable whisky probably because I have never seen the avian type in the wild. However there was a time when the word most likely would have been associated with a covey of majestic looking birds creeping through the heather of Dartmoor – sadly those days have long gone. In some respects its’s sad that in this country we are more concerned about endangered animal species that are in dire threat of extinction on far off continents than what’s happening on our shores. Recently there has been much media attention of the plight of the Northern White Rhinoceros but in all reality what chances has the average British person of ever seeing one? Whereas a greater number of people would have the likelihood of seeing a Black Grouse on Dartmoor if the same efforts and expenditure was put into their reintroduction and conservation? Maybe we should be more concerned as to what is happening or has happened on British soil than that of far off distant lands?
There were/are two types of grouse on Dartmoor, the Black Grouse, (AKA Black Game or Black Cock), (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 or more likely hear. In Smaldon’s opinion the Black Grouse was indigenous to Dartmoor, pp. 70 – 71, 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, p.228.
In 1848 Samuel Rowe commented 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“, p.345.
Back in 1839 Elisa Bray commented that: “Of the black grouse, some few still remain on Dartmoor, where they breed in the ‘turf tyes.’ All attempts to preserve this beautiful bird are unsuccessful. The great extent of the Moor, while it is the sole protection of a few individuals, renders it impossible to defend them from the depredations of the miners and turf-cutters who frequent the Moor.” Not only were predators responsible for the bird’s decline but swaling, the practice of burning off large areas of heather and gorse also had an huge impact. In 1872 the following appeared in the Exeter and Devon Gazette; “The range of the Blackcock on Dartmoor is annually becoming more restricted by the destruction of cover. Burning heather and gorse to open up pasture ground for moor cattle and sheep is a practice which is constantly abused, such fires being purposefully allowed to spread beyond the spaces intended to be cleared for the sole reason of injuring the holders of the shootings. Vast tracts are thus denuded of cover in which it would take years to re-establish a sufficient growth of gorse and ling to afford shelter for Black Game. Poachers, too, occasionally make a raid over the moor from Plymouth and stuff their bags with greyhens, destroying the prospects of the next breeding season; whilst foxes which abound on the moor, must devour numbers of birds as well as their eggs. As a singular instance of this shy bird approaching human dwellings, I was told at the Government Prison at Princetown, of seven Blackcocks having sheltered one winter’s day, a few yards since, on the high wall which surrounds the building, sitting there in sight of the inmates for some time.” As this report suggests Black Grouse were important to the ‘sportsmen’ who regularly shot the birds and the landowners who provided the grounds and birds for them to shoot over. Whilst today in some quarters this practice is frowned upon one could argue that by breeding and protecting the birds this may have managed to sustain some populations.
Back in 1816 an advert appeared in the Exeter Flying Post for the sale of Gidley (Gidleigh) Manor. One of the selling points was that; “this manor affords Black Game…” which along with the other game species suggested an ideal shooting estate. As Rowe mentioned, 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, p.94. This basically encompassed a great deal of the south moor and his reason for ‘preservation’ was to stock his shoot. In 1877 it appeared that Torrens was the victim of swaling as in the August of that year he brought before the Ashburton magistrates a farmer from Hexworthy on the charge of setting fire to hundreds of acres of heath and gorse on Ryder’s Hill. Mr. C. Barington the Duchy steward confirmed to the court that Ryder’s Hill was an excellent place for the breeding of Black Game and that the fire had destroyed hundreds of acres of that habitat.
Here is an account of Black Grouse shooting on Dartmoor from the mid 1800s:
“On the sky-line a quaint figure on a rough pony beckons us up the slope. It is Bill, best known of Dartmoor worthies. A flash of lightning that thirty years ago set his little house ablaze has left him lame; but he is a true son of the chase for all his lameness, and knows every fox and badger holt in the countryside and every little pool on the river. Between his toothless gums is his inch of black clay. Round his battered hat are coiled carefully his favourite flies. It’s not a bad morning, he says. He has marked down a pack of ‘black cock’ on the rise infront. He loosens his dog. After a bound of recognition the setter goes off across the moor at the top of his speed, as if there were no such thing as a black cock within forty miles. All at once, he stops short, stiffened in every limb; to use old Bill’s favourite expression, “as stiff’s a gig.” We advance with firm and eager tread, our minds intent upon the dog. There is a rustle among the grass of a little hollow, right under his nose. Up they get, with a great rush, two noble cocks. They are down, right and left. The dog just glances at them. His work is not done. There are more yet. Slowly he advances some twenty yards further, his eyes riveted on a great patch of ling in front of him. There they go, a cock and two hens. The hens go by; we give them law. Except by accident, they are never shot. But the cock has met his fate. He is down. The day wears on. After an hour’s camp in a sunny hollow Bill finds us another pack. We do well. Ten fine cocks in all are slung on the saddle of the little pony, and there is an ‘accident’ or two somewhere among the baggage. It’s a good day’s work. Ten birds and five and twenty miles of moor. We strike across the heath and gain the old miner’s path and plod cheerily homeward down the hill road.” One of the largest strongholds of the Black Grouse was at one time the vast heather tracts on the artillery ranges of north Dartmoor. Here it was said that a fairly decent living could be made from the sale of the birds to game dealers. However, by the 1830s the weekly London Market reports was stating that there was either no Black Game for sale or that what few there were fetched over ten shillings brace. In theory on Dartmoor it was the Duchy foresters who were responsible to ensure that the game laws were adhered to on Dartmoor. One of the provisions of this law was that Black Game were to be only shot between the 1st of September and the 10th of December but in 1843 the general consensus was that this order was being ignored. In 1862 a case was brought before Newton Abbot magistrates alleging that one William French of Bovey Tracy shot a Black Grouse on the 30th of August which was a day before the season had started, in this instance the charge was disproven and the case dropped. But it does demonstrate that people were being taken to court for such offences. In 1877 it was stated that; “There are a few nests of Black Game (or Heath Fowl, as they are termed in Devon) on Dartmoor. It is a great pity they are not protected, as Dartmoor may be much enhanced in value for shooting, as it is, for every nest there are a score of gunners, who as soon as they hear of the former, regularly hunt them down, so that it is a wonder there is a single pair left to breed. Nine tenths of these gunners have no game certificate, but make their licence serve.” – The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, August 13th.
Today probably the only chance of seeing Black Grouse on Dartmoor is on the label of that ‘famous’ bottle of whisky behind some inn’s bar. 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. Additionally 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. A task made much easier by their slow, cumbersome flight speed, this also made them simple targets for anyone with a gun. Then there was the ‘legal’ type of game hunting, namely, as can be seen above the organised shooting of the birds. Another cause (as mentioned above) 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. Only one week ago (April 2018) a huge gorse and heather fire broke out near Watern tor and was reported to have a fire front of some 2 km by 3 km. This clearly shows how much damage can be done on Dartmoor when such a fire breaks out what devastation would have been caused to the natural habitat of the Black Grouse.
One really off the use for killing black grouse was back in the 1800s when a remedy for scrofula (tuberculosis of the neck) was to rub the blood of a Black Grouse into the swollen glands to relieve the pain and cure the condition.
However, it just may well be that the Black Grouse has not been lost to Dartmoor afterall as there have been a couple of reliable reports of sightings. According to the Birdforum one of these may well have been in the Hexworthy area as recent as 2017?
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.