Erris Nature Trail

Red grouse numbers are increasing in Mayo

A significant increase has taken place in red grouse numbers in the Owenduff/Nephin Complex in County Mayo, according to a new report from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

The results are linked to an improvement in habitat quality following destocking and appropriate grazing management.

CAP subsidised stocking of sheep in the west of Ireland led to a dramatic rise in sheep numbers in the 1980s and 1990s with an associated increase in grazing pressures on the uplands used by the grouse.

In 2000, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) took a case against Ireland in relation to Ireland’s failure to protect the habitat of the red grouse.

Following the designation of the Owenduff/Nephin Complex as a Natura 2000 site, destocking of sheep from the commonages was recommended.

This destocking began in the winter of 2002/2003 and was a significant step in reducing grazing pressure on habitats within the site.

However, it was not until 2006, when new management prescriptions and obligations were introduced including a mandatory five-month off wintering period and an obligation to join REPS or an NPWS farm plan that real habitat recovery began. The associated compensation costs to farmers from 2006 to date have been in the order of €3M.

Large increase

This new report provides the results of a red grouse survey conducted in 2012, a repeat of a survey that had been carried out in 2002. The results indicate a population of 790 – 832 individual birds within the Owenduff/Nephin Complex. This is effectively a doubling in numbers since 2002 when the population of red grouse was estimated at 362 – 426 individuals.

The population expansion is also evident from the significant increase in the proportion of survey squares occupied by red grouse, from 50% in 2002 (six out of 12 x 1km squares surveyed) to 100% in the current period.

These results are important in the context of the overall status of red grouse in Ireland; a decrease in the population of red grouse of 66 % for Ireland was recorded between the 1968/72 and 1988/91 Bird Atlases.

Welcoming the report, Jimmy Deenihan, T.D., Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, said: “The results of the survey indicate a large increase in grouse numbers over the last 10 years. This shows us that grouse numbers can improve quickly when we take steps that allow their habitats to recover.”

Special Protection Area

The Owenduff/Nephin Complex is designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the Birds Directive. The site is particularly important for golden plover and merlin, but the site also contains important numbers of wintering Greenland white-fronted geese and has been an important breeding site for red grouse in Ireland.

Grouse rely on heather for food and shelter. At high densities, sheep overgrazing can lead to a significant reduction in heather cover and regeneration which in turn reduces the available habitat for many upland wildlife species, including red grouse.

The report is published in the Department’s Irish Wildlife Manuals series and will be available online shortly at this link.

Full Citation

Murray, T., Clotworthy, C. & Bleasdale, A. (2013) A Survey of Red Grouse (Lagopus Lagopus scoticus) in the Owenduff/Nephin Complex Special Protection Area. Irish Wildlife Manuals, No. 77. National Parks and Wildlife Service, Department of the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Ireland

By Anthony Hickey

Follow writer and photographer, Anthony Hickey, as he travels around his native Co. Mayo, Ireland.