Published in support of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan for black grouse

History and population trends

How many in Britain?
The black grouse has undergone a serious decline in population and range in Britain over the last century. Highly prized by sportsmen, 'game bags' provide an insight into their dramatic decline and show that they have been lost from many areas where they were once abundant.

The population has been estimated several times, but each by a different method, so the estimates are not directly comparable. In 1973, a very rough estimate put it at between 10,000 and 100,000 males (Parslow), though it is believed that the true figure was well within the lower half of this range. In 1988-91, the BTO New Atlas of Breeding Birds estimated that there were 10-15,000 females and 13,000-19,500 males, given a ratio of 1.3 cocks per hen.

In the early 1990s, Baines & Hudson used a combination of bird surveys and landowner questionnaires to estimate that there were 25,271 (95% cl 13,800 - 36,700) lekking males. However, during the 1990s the average rate of decline across Britain was believed to be 10% per year.

It was not until the first systematic survey was carried out in 1995/96 (by The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage), that a robust estimate of the population was possible. This survey (Hancock et al. 1999) estimated there to be 6,500 lekking males. In 2005 this figure had decreased to 5,100 lekking males. While numbers were stable and increasing in Wales and northern England, populations in some areas of Scotland had suffered severe declines. Efforts to find out how this trend can be reversed are underway.

The population in Scotland declined rapidly from 1900. There was a partial reprieve during the 1950s-70s when large areas of the uplands were commercially planted with conifers. This provided a temporary habitat for black grouse, resulting in a re-expansion in range. But once these trees grew and the canopy closed, shading out the understorey, the range retracted once more. At the same time, marginal farmland was subject to increased grazing pressure by deer and sheep and more intensive management, which further limited range and food resources.

In western and south-west Scotland, the remaining black grouse are found predominantly around forestry plantations, while in southern, eastern and parts of northern Scotland, they are most associated with the edge of moors managed for red grouse shooting.

The history of black grouse in Wales closely follows those in Scotland, with a long-term decline since 1900. Upland plantations probably reduced the rate of decline in the 1950s and '60s, but again, the net result was fewer black grouse, once the tree canopy had closed, exacerbated by heavy grazing of the surrounding farmland by sheep. Today, black grouse are still mostly associated with plantations and forest edges. The latest surveys show an increase in recent years, with 213 lekking males in 2005, compared to 139 recorded in 1997.

In England, black grouse have become extinct from many counties. Until the 1930s, they were found on the lowland heathlands of southern England, in Dorset and Hampshire, and even until the late 1960s, a small number lekked on Dartmoor and Exmoor. Their range has retracted from the south, leaving the population restricted to the North Pennines and parts of Northumberland and North Yorkshire. The bulk of the population is found on the fringes of moorlands managed for red grouse.

There were several attempts in the 19th century to introduce or reintroduce black grouse, including in Buckinghamshire, Orkney and even Ireland, where there are no previous records of black grouse. None of these attempts was successful in the long term.

In Northern England, black grouse are showed encouraging signs of recovery with national surveys of lekking males in 1998, 2002 and 2006 showing increases in both numbers and range from 773 males, occupying 74, 5 km grid squares in 1998, to 1,029 males, occupying 93, 5 km grid squares in 2006. The core of the English population, found in the North Pennines, is stable, with exceptional increases on the southern edge of their range in the Yorkshire Dales, of 138% between 1998 and 2006. However, two years of very poor breeding conditions in spring 2007 and 2008 have resulted in a decline in numbers back to an estimated 734 lekking males in 2009.

County/Area Last recorded
Staffordshire 1997
Lancashire 1997
Derbyshire 1987
Exmoor 1969
East Yorkshire 1959
New Forest 1936
Nottinghamshire 1917
Worcestershire 1915
Cornwall 1904
Kent 1851
Wiltshire 1820
Surrey 1760

Year of extinction in a selection of English counties and areas.