Back from the dead: how the red grouse has been revived


ANOTHER LIFE:THE SUN TAKES its time to rise behind the mountain, so I begin my morning walk down the boreen in dawn’s deep shadow in a yellow high-vis waistcoat and ends in broad daylight, feeling somewhat overdressed, with a wave to the school bus whizzing up the hill.

The hillside can be a bowl of silence until then, with soothing surf sounds from the shore, but the slow launch of the day is defied by a clarion call from somewhere in the rushes, beyond the cluster of luminous ewes still mounded in sleep.

The resonant, repetitive korrk-kook of a territorial cock pheasant is not my favourite sound: the incessant calling outside my hedges was driving me mad last summer, not to mention the sudden, close-by drumming of wings, loud as a football rattle, that could put the heart across me.

But autumn outbursts of this compulsive territorial croak are apparently confined to this year’s male offspring, so perhaps I should be pleased for the gun club.

There are more than a million pheasants scattered across the island but few in many pockets of the coastal west. Most of the million are wild, as, even with the notorious struggle of hand-reared birds to feed and breed for themselves, 400 years of releases, from big-house shoots to local gun clubs, were bound to have some result.

And, much as they can annoy me, in spring the sight of a glorious Chinese cock, with its white neck ring, in slow parade beneath our winter trees is an enrichment to anyone’s life.

Shooting has never been my bag, though the Cavan man who let me marry his daughter used to festoon his gateposts in the 1940s with native red grouse brought down from Cuilcagh mountain.

He knew his wild husbandry, if that’s the term, and in the last days of the open season he would shoot over the heathery slopes, not to kill but to disperse the young birds and, presumably, their genes.

Not that far off, in north Leitrim, Boleybrack mountain must have offered similar cover to the grouse. But, as was general in the west, the end of the century brought decades of sheep overgrazing, new swathes of forestry, disastrous wildfires and a build-up of predatory foxes and crows nourished on sheep carrion.

The breeding range of the red grouse shrank by two-thirds in 30 years, and Ireland found itself under coercion by the EU. On Boleybrack mountain the national red-grouse survey of the mid-2000s listed “a record” of the bird. In 2007 there were just three calling males.

This autumn the mountain holds at least 85 birds, restored by a remarkable five-year project that offers the model for the denuded uplands of the west.

It has already inspired imitation elsewhere in Ireland. Indeed, Ministers Jimmy Deenihan (Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht) and Simon Coveney (Agriculture, Food and the Marine) hope to work its essentials into the current Common Agricultural Policy reforms, with funding under its pillar 2, for rural development.

Most striking of all, perhaps, is the list of agencies and interests that came together in the Boleybrack project: the local Glenfarne Gun Club, whose initiative it was, and the National Association of Regional Gun Clubs (NARGC); the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), for which Boleybrack is a Special Area of Conservation; Coillte, whose local forests have been at such risk from reckless wildfires; the local sheep farmers, members of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association, the Heritage Council and the Golden Eagle Trust, guardians of the eagle-reintroduction programme centred on Glenveagh, in neighbouring Donegal.

In the apparently brilliant outcome of such co-operation, every interest has had something to gain, not least in mutual trust. The key to a good population of grouse is a healthy growth of heather, managed by skilled and controlled seasonal burning, a special competence of the NARGC, and matching sheep numbers to a mountain’s ecological capacity.

Heather’s benefits are not confined to grouse: it supports a whole natural ecosystem, from the ground-nesting upland birds and microplants that share its shelter to hare and invertebrates that, like the grouse, feed on its shoots.

The second big priority has been control of predators, a need already apparent in schemes to rescue our last breeding curlew.

Boleybrack now has a full-time, experienced gamekeeper supplied through the NARGC. Like his colleague at Boora, in the midlands, watching over the restoration of grey partridge, his first targets will be found among foxes and crows.

Already, sheep farmers are finding fewer casualties among lambs – and are happy to learn that young fox cubs and crows are high on the menu of golden eagles.

Where, I wonder, might this leave the familiar gamekeeper’s “vermin” of Scotland’s upper-crust grouse moors – the hen harrier, as one challenging example? Still under the watchful eye, one presumes, of Boleybrack mountain’s NPWS conservation rangers.

There will, of course, be shooting eventually, to be shared with tourist sportsmen: this is part of the deal with the community. Given all its other great benefits, it’s a good deal for nature as well.

Shooting has never been my bag, though the Cavan man who let me marry his daughter used to festoon his gateposts in the 1940s with native red grouse

Eye on nature

I’m sending you a photograph of a brown hairy caterpillar that I found in mid-October crawling on bent grass by the seashore in south Wexford. It was over three inches long at full stretch.

Jim Curtis,

Piercestown, Wexford

It is the caterpillar of a grass eggar moth – not, as far as I can find, on the Irish list but found in coastal regions of England and Wales. It feeds on marram or bent grass. This caterpillar should have pupated a couple of months ago.

While walking down the lane I came across two wrens rolling around on the tarmac, fighting. They were so engrossed in their actions that they did not separate until I was six feet away, when they both dived into a hedgerow in different directions. Was this territorial or were they fighting over the abundance of berries?

Justin Doyle, Virginia, Co Cavan

It was territorial. Wrens eat mostly insects.

I recently found some cooked chicken lightly buried in a large pot in my garden. Two days later it was gone. I presume that it was one of our local foxes.

Maeve Kane, Glasthule, Co Dublin

Most likely a fox raiding refuse bins.

* Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or email Please include a postal address

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