Red Grouse – Hunstanworth Moor, Weardale

We enjoyed a fantastic five days with my cousins Janet and Clifford who live in St John’s Chapel, Weardale which is in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This is where my Mum was born and lived until she married my Dad in 1966. I hadn’t visited since my teens, we were really spoiled and it was great to see lots of the places I hadn’t seen in more than 30 years. Apart from flights with work to Glasgow this was Sarah’s first time in the North.

While we were there Janet and Clifford also showed us some of the special birds in the area. First up were Red Grouse on the first morning. We headed to Westgate and then up the steep hill northwards towards Hunstanworth Moor. With it being mid-August the whole area looked spectacular with the heather in full flower. Clifford quickly picked out the first Red Grouse of the day. I hadn’t expected to be sketching but our views were really good and so we stopped the car and I got my telescope, tripod and sketchbook out of the boot.

There were quite a few family parties about and it was quite difficult to tell the sexes apart now that the breeding season is virtually complete. Red Grouse are a lovely reddish brown with a white eye ring and fleshy red eye combs which are smaller and less prominent in the female. It was great to see several grouse perched up high on raised ground so that we could see their white feathered legs and feet.

In various places around the moor there were wooden butts which in three days, on the ‘glorious’ 12th, would house people wanting to shoot the grouse. Personally, I think killing for sport is unnecessary especially when lots of other wildlife is also persecuted in the process. Golden Eagles and Hen Harriers are shot and poisoned. Foxes, Weasels, Stoats and even Red Squirrels, Hedgehogs and Dippers are all trapped on grouse moorland often in un-monitored snares.

There are also environmental issues, the heather is burned to produce a constant supply of new heather shoots for the grouse and this is said to produce significant amounts of carbon dioxide each year and this burning is also said to reduce the ability of the moorland to absorb water thus contributing to the regular flooding of nearby towns and villages.

Others would argue that it’s a bit more complicated than this and say that on the pro hunting side lots of jobs are created, there is a significant contribution to local economic activity and the links to carbon dioxide production and flooding are all denied as exaggerated or false.

Black Grouse – Langdon Beck, Weardale – 10th August 2019

On our second morning we headed over the top of Harthope Moor to visit Langdon Beck which Janet and Clifford knew was a regular site for Black Grouse. This is the highest tarmacked public road in England, at more than 2,000 feet, and it was shrouded in low cloud and drizzle as we passed over the top. The fog lifted as we lost height on the other side and we pulled over on the roadside verge overlooking the huge grass field which the Black Grouse use to lek in the spring. 

Fairly soon we picked out three distant males in the long grass. I started a few sketches but the grouse were too far away for these sketches to go particularly well, I just couldn’t see sufficient detail and it’s always better to sketch what you see and not what you think should be there.

As a result of habitat loss and overgrazing by livestock, Black Grouse is one of the most rapidly declining birds in the UK. There are probably less than 5,000 males in the UK (of which there are around 850 males in the North Pennines). This compares to more than 200,000 male Red Grouse.  The main population of Black Grouse is in upland Scotland with smaller populations in Wales and the Pennines.

Black Grouse takes my year list up to 231.

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