Holes in the map, part 1: Black Grouse

RSPB Haweswater Site Manager, Lee Schofield, reflects on a species that recently vanished from the Lake District and what maps can tell us about the history of wildlife in Cumbria.

For my 40th birthday, not too long ago, my wife gave me a framed print of the 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey map of the area surrounding our home on the edge of the Lake District National Park. I love maps at the best of times, especially OS maps, which are surely the world’s most detailed and visually appealing of their kind, but I find myself becoming mildly obsessed with this one in particular.

I’ve recently been trying to learn more about how places in the Lake District earned their names. Because of the peculiarities of Cumbria’s history, our local place names have diverse origins. Many come from the Old Norse, reflecting the area’s Viking Heritage, some have Celtic roots, particularly those in the north of the county, which at various points through history has found itself south of the Scottish Border. Going further back, Old English and Common Brittonic languages have also left their marks, providing the names for many of our rivers and mountains and other landscape features.

The study of place names, or toponymy, to give it its proper name, is fascinating wherever you are in the world, bringing a whole new perspective to the countryside and its history. But being an ecologist, what particularly interests me, is what place names tell us about habitats and species, and how the ever-changing human interaction with the landscape has affected them.

There are many places that carry the name of a now locally extinct species or of a habitat that isn’t there any more. The closest of these to where I live is Cocklakes Hill. Cocklakes is a derivation of ‘cock lek’ meaning that at some point in the past, this hill was very likely to have been a lekking site for black grouse, also known as blackcock.

There are no black grouse here now though. The last of them vanished from the Lake District in around the 1980’s. Because of their popularity as birds for shooting and eating, releases probably sustained their population for longer than they might have hung on otherwise, but even without these, they are probably one the most recent departures from the Lake District’s cast of breeding birds.

Although black grouse no longer breed anywhere in the Lake District, they can still be found in Cumbria, over in the Pennines, including at our wonderful reserve at Geltsdale. Every spring, the stunning black, white and red male black grouse congregate in traditional sites to ‘lek’, where they perform a highly ritualised and spectacular display in competition for the dowdier females, who look on from the sidelines. These lek sites were used reliably enough for people to name places after them, including the one just down the road from my house.

Black grouse demand a lot from the landscape. At different stages of their life they need intact bogs and flushes, heathland, young woodland, and grassland to satisfy their broad diet, which includes insects, berries, and the buds and shoots of various trees and dwarf shrubs. Looking at my map, there isn’t much to offer black grouse around Cocklakes Hill today. The closest area of heathland is a few miles to the south at Gowbarrow Park. The fragment of bog that is now protected as Tarn Moss National Nature Reserve is surely part of what would have been a much larger expanse of insect rich wetland, now mostly covered by an impenetrable conifer planation. There are tiny fragments of woodland here and there, but most of it is old, with little in the way of regenerating young trees, which black grouse are particularly fond of.

Cocklakes Hill itself, where presumably the lek used to be, is now a close-cropped sheep pasture, grazed all year round. There is no longer any scope for the growth of longer vegetation that would have given the female black grouse the ringside cover to lurk in while they watched the males compete for their affections. In the publically accessible aerial photos courtesy of Google, regular lines are visible, running east to west across these fields. These mark the presence of sub-surface drains, drying the land and reducing its value for insects that might once have fed the black grouse. This drainage, which lurks beneath almost every agricultural field in Cumbria also reduces the suitability of these fields for waders like lapwing and curlew, which need damp soil in which to probe for food.

Black grouse are a quite sedentary species, not keen on colonising new areas of habitat if it involves flying any great distance. Even so, the prospects for black grouse returning to the Lake District are beginning to look up. Large areas of new tree planting have been carried out in recent years, effectively creating a habitat corridor between the parts of the Pennines where black grouse are still present and the Lakes. The area of the Lakes that black grouse are likely to reach first happens to be the place where they vanished from most recently – the Eastern Lakes, including Haweswater.

Over recent years, working together with United Utilities, we have created a much more black grouse friendly landscape at Haweswater, restoring bogs, planting new woodland and scrub and reducing grazing pressure to promote the recovery of heathland and a generally healthier habitat mosaic. 

Closer to Cocklakes Hill, things could be looking up too. In the Matterdale Valley, just south of Cocklakes, a group of farmers are working together to improve their farms for wildlife. Under the banner of the Ullswater Catchment Management CIC, they are planting trees, restoring hedges and hay meadows, re-meandering becks and creating new ponds. At the northern end of the valley, Great Mell Fell, owned by the National Trust, is now being grazed in a way which is resulting in tremendous heathland recovery, and allowing ancient woodland to recover and spread. This all adds up to restoring a landscape that black grouse might be able to thrive in again someday.

There are plenty of other holes in the map of the Lake District, places that reflect associations with eagles, wild cats, pine martens, wild boar, corncrakes and even wolves – all species that aren’t here now. But I’ll deal with some of these in future posts.