Red grouse (Lagopus lagopus)

Also known as: Willow grouse, Willow ptarmigan
SizeLength: 33 – 38cm

The red grouse is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Not protected (game species), in the UK. Included in the Birds of Conservation Concern Amber List (medium conservation concern).

The red grouse Lagopus lagopus scoticus is the British race of the willow grouse (Lagopus l. lagopus), although it was once believed that the red grouse was a distinct species known as Lagopus scoticus, endemic to the British Isles. Red grouse are dumpy birds, predominantly rufous-red in colour with a low whirring flight punctuated with glides. Like all grouse, they have feathered legs, feet and toes. The males have red eyebrow wattles that are not visible at a distance, and are darker than those of the females. The call is very distinctive and consists of a series of guttural barks, accelerating to a sort of deep trill, often ending with a sound resembling “go-back-go-back-go-back”.

Red grouse are found in north western parts of upland England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The related willow grouse ranges throughout the northern boreal forests, in Scandinavia, Finland, Karelia and northern Russia.

Willow grouse are birds of the northern pine and birch forests, heather tundra and mountain slopes. Red grouse are found on open moorland, preferably with heather, and no woodland.

Male red grouse mark out their territories with an energetic display during which they leap into the air, giving their characteristic ‘go-back-go-back’ call. They compete for an area of moor with plenty of heather and bilberry bushes in which the female will produce a nest scrape for her eggs. These eggs are well camouflaged, laid in April and may number ten or more. The chicks hatch after about three weeks, and are fed by both birds for six weeks. They can fly after 13 days.

Red grouse have been a quarry species for years, but the sport only became a source of lucrative business when the breech-loading gun was invented in the mid 19th century, and the railways provided access to the moors. The ‘Glorious twelfth’ of August, the opening of the grouse-shooting season, was apparently chosen to fit in with the parliamentary summer recess, as well as the birds’ breeding season.

The Game Conservancy Trust has studied long-term records of red grouse populations, which indicate that the species has been in decline for some decades. In part, this has been caused by a reduction in game keeping on the moors, with more birds lost to predators such as foxes and crows. But there has also been a change in moorland management, leading to degradation of the habitat and a loss of the heather on which the birds rely for food.

The successful conservation of any species is largely determined by proper management of its habitat. The red grouse is a good example of a species which has declined through a lack of suitable habitat management. In the last 50 years the uplands have lost 20-40% of heather and semi-natural scrub to commercial forestry and over-grazing, particularly by sheep. Upland moorland, especially moorland covered by heather, is a scarce habitat and considered internationally important. It supports a number of uncommon bird species including hen harrier, golden eagle, dotterel and ptarmigan, as well as red grouse.

The Game Conservancy Trust is encouraging the take-up of traditional moorland habitat management in order to restore grouse numbers to respectable levels. While there are many who dislike the practise of shooting for sport, management for red grouse aims to protect the species in a sustainable way, and preserve a habitat rich in unusual plants, mammals and birds. At the same time, there is a review of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which is aiming to reduce upland grazing levels in an effort to reduce pressure on red grouse habitat.

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  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2011)