Home bird in need of protection

THE red grouse, a relative of the pheasant and the farmyard hen, lives in bogs, where it feeds on the shoots of young heather.

Its status in Ireland has been much debated; is it to be regarded as a distinct sub-species or not? Arriving here at the end of the last ice age, it’s had plenty of time to develop ‘Irish solutions to Irish problems’. British grouse hate travelling.

Ninety-four percent of males in a Scottish study never ventured more than 1.5km from home-sweet-home and the greatest distance covered was 8km. Females were more adventurous; 79% stayed within 1.5km and one individual travelled 42km. Apart from the occasional batch of foreign birds released to improve local hunting stock, grouse here have been on their own for millennia.

Our climate and habitat differ from those found elsewhere and so, it’s argued, our population must be unique.

Richard Ussher and Robert Warren, in Birds of Ireland published in 1900, remarked that the Irish grouse is ‘lighter in colour, especially on the under-parts, than those of Great Britain’. GR Humphrey’s A List of Irish Birds, published by the National Museum in 1937, treats our bird as a sub-species; ‘lagopus scoticus hibernicus’, it declares, ‘is confined to Ireland and the Outer Hebrides’.

The claim to uniqueness has been challenged, however. Variations in plumage colour, the sceptics point out, are not sufficient grounds for sub-species designation. Colour variation is common among bird and mammal species and volume II of the prestigious Birds of the Western Palearctic, which appeared in 1980, does not include our bird in its list of recognised sub-species.

However, there was good news for the eco-nationalists this month. At a conference organised by the Irish Grey Partridge Conservation Trust, UCD’s Dr Barry McMahon confirmed that the red grouse can confidently join the coal tit, dipper and jay as a national sub-species. He collected feathers from 89 Irish birds and 28 Scottish ones. DNA comparisons show the Irish and Scottish populations are distinct.

There is more to sub-specific designation than honours and a title. The Government has signed international treaties obliging us to protect wild birds and, as Kieran Buckley of the Trust declared, we have an added responsibility where an endemic sub-species is concerned. Ireland has not, unfortunately, honoured its obligations up to now; grouse are in serious decline.

BirdWatch Ireland’s Dr Sinead Cummins carried out a national grouse survey with the support of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. She found the species range has been halved in the last 40 years and that about 4,200 birds remain.

According to the conference organisers, loss of habitat has “squeezed the red grouse into a genetic bottleneck”.

“Island populations are unable to communicate because they are physically cut off,” they say.

Barry MacMahon’s research uncovered evidence of inbreeding. According to the Trust’s position statement, “small isolated populations ... are at risk of extinction – if no action is taken to save them, we predict some of these populations may be extinct within the next decade”.

There’s a downside to sub-species designation as far as protection is concerned; birds can’t be brought from abroad to bolster flagging numbers because the foreigners would contaminate the local gene pool. So what is to be done?

The involvement of the trust offers a ray of hope for our grouse; the organisation succeeded in bringing the grey partridge back from the brink of extinction. With only two dozen birds left in the country, the trust created a partridge habitat at Boora Bog in Co Offaly and set up a protection regime for nesting. Thanks to its efforts they have made a strong comeback.

The grouse problem is, however, of a different order. Small isolated populations gradually decline unless they get infusions of ‘new blood’. The best way to ensure this, is to establish corridors enabling grouse to move between pockets. But how can you link the Slieve Bloom population to that of the Silvermines or the Galtee birds to those of the Knockmealdowns?

The trust’s action plan proposes that the Wildlife Service ‘make a significant area of lands available’ which would be ‘managed to provide a surplus of red grouse for trans-location’. The most diverse of our populations is Co Wicklow’s. That county will, no doubt, be the focus of future development.

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