Red grouse comes down from usual habitat

An interesting sighting at the weekend was a red grouse in a garden in Toft, probably driven down from the hills by the severe wintry weather.

Their usual habitat is high heather moorland, such as the hills above Cunningsburgh, and in the hills of parts of the North, Central and West Mainland.

The red grouse is a local race of the willow grouse, a species found in a range of Arctic and alpine environments. Willow grouse turn white in winter, rather like a ptarmigan, and the alternative common name for the species is willow ptarmigan. However, red grouse do not moult into white winter plumage, and it is thought that the reddish- brown plumage evolved after the ice bridge, which connected Britain to Europe, melted around 11,500 years ago. Males have darker, more uniform plumage and have distinctive red combs above the eyes. The female is paler, with ochrous edges on the feathers. Both sexes have their legs and feet covered in white feathers.

Red grouse are found on heather moorlands in the north and west of Britain and in Ireland. The young shoots of ling heather Calluna vulgaris are their staple diet, but they also eat cotton grass shoots, seeds, berries and insects (the chicks are fed on insects). The grouse also depend on taller stands of heather for nesting and for cover. They spend much of their time on the ground and when flushed, explode noisily into flight, with rapid wing beats, interspersed with glides. This flight pattern makes them a favourite target for shooters and many of the Highlands estates are managed for rearing grouse by rotational muirburn. By burning patches of heather at different times, a mosaic of different aged heather plants is produced which support higher densities of grouse than unmanaged moorland.

In Shetland there have been several attempts in the past to introduce Red Grouse as game birds. The present populations probably originate from two large releases between 1900 and 1910. The Shetland red grouse breeding population is small and localised but is self-sustaining. Grouse are territorial birds and are mainly monogamous. The males establish territories in autumn and defend their areas during the winter.

In the first week of February there have been several records of over-wintering passerines including the coal tit at Sandgarth, Voe, a few greenfinches, up to three stonechats, a dunnock, a song thrush and chaffinches. On the 5th the chaffinch flock at Veensgarth increased to a record 220 birds, with scattered records elsewhere, including one in our garden.

Joyce Garden


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.