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Black Grouse (Lyrurus tetrix) on the Heaths on and around Ashdown Forest – Past and Future

CLIVE POOLE (RETIRED VOLUNTARY RANGER, ASHDOWN FOREST)

This article was prompted by an entry made in July 2023 on Ashdown Forest Wildlife Facebook by Peter Etheridge (born in 1932 and now a sprightly 90 years old!).

Peter related, how in 1948/49 as a sixteenyear-old, he was “out with his ferret hunting conies for the pot” (a coney being a country name for rabbit) and was working along the railway bank just north of Jarvis Brook railway station. At that time the land to the west and east of the railway line, north of the station, had not been developed and remained scrub heathland. He had continued walking north-east along the course of the railway track after it ran under Palesgate Road. As he came towards the pumping station, he disturbed an unusual large bird on the bank. His vivid recollection, even after 74 years, is “of a large black bird with red wattles (feathers over each eye) and a lyre-shaped tail. It glided, not flew, out of sight.” He hurried to consult his copy of ‘The Birds of the Wayside and Woodland’ and “Black Grouse was the only bird that fitted that description”, he said.

When I telephoned Peter about his experience, we had a long chat about his encounter and the habitat north of Jarvis Brook at that time. From Peter’s description of the birds’ “jizz” (size, flight pattern, silhouette and so on) he had clearly flushed a Black Cock (Male Black Grouse). Peter was very familiar with that area in 1948/9 due to his regular hunting forays either side of the railway track. Very few people, if indeed any, ever walked there and he had the place to himself (birdwatching being a relatively rare hobby then). On either side of the line in those days was uncultivated open heathland: a mosaic of heather, bracken, silver birch, and willow scrub. Some parts were boggy, and he recalls they harboured Snipe (Common Snipe and probably in winter Jack Snipe) and Curlew. In summer he remembers Nightjar on the dry heath. Though he searched subsequently, he never saw the Black Cock again.

 

 

 

The most recent record of Black Grouse (Lyrurus tetrix, formerly Tetrao tetrix) within the Pale of Ashdown Forest was of a female in 1937. Black Grouse are extremely vulnerable to disturbance by humans, dogs and grazing livestock. It is probable that these pressures have been contributory factors leading to the extinction of the breeding population within the Pale by around 1937. Black Grouse are sedentary and site-faithful UK resident birds. Their usual lifespan in the wild is around five years. It seems entirely possible that a small relict population clung on here undisturbed on heathland north of Palesgate Road until 1948/49. The main stronghold in Sussex for Black Grouse until the 1930s had been the heathland of Ashdown Forest. Since that period this splendid member of the grouse family has become extinct on all the heaths and moors of southern England stretching from Dartmoor in the west to Ashdown in the east.

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