Thursday, October 30, 2008

Too Many Fox in Scotland is Good for Wisconsin

Red grouse, Scotland.

Forbes magazine reports on the "Grouse Crisis" in Scotland:

Park Falls, Wisconsin may be short on single malts, tweeds and pip-pipping. But it's got something grouse hunters in the U.K. could use more of: Birds.

When the heather blooms on the Scottish moors, tweedy gentlemen with bespoke shotguns take to blasting grouse. The sport usually brings $30 million a year to the Scottish economy, according to Glasgow's University of Strathclyde. Recent years, though, have been disappointing.

In 2006 and 2007 heavy rainfall damaged nests. Surviving young fell prey to an outbreak of ticks and to predation by an uncontrolled fox population, fox hunting having fallen into disrepute. This caused sherry-sipping lords to despair that the flush days of the sport might be coming to an end. The 2008 season, which opened Aug. 12 and will conclude in mid-December, has been an improvement, owing to the use of medicated grit to treat parasites and caged watering areas to protect birds from predators. "I should say mixed is a way of putting it," says Edward Hay, director of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. Some moors in North Yorkshire did well, but grouse in parts of Scotland were "virtually nonexistent." Since 1985 tick infestations have gone from 4% of chicks to 92%--not a good sign for the future.

Yet 4,000 miles away and a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Minneapolis lies the Shangri-la of grouse. Fat and happy birds by the tens of thousands are tapping their toes, just waiting to be shot. The lake-abutting mill town of Park Falls, Wis. bills itself as the Ruffed Grouse Capital of the World. Ruffed grouse, named for the iridescent black feathers on their napes, are cousin to the red grouse of the U.K. Like their cousins they spend most of their life on the ground (grubbing for clover, berries and bugs) and fly only to avoid enemies.

Hunters call them "winged dynamite" for their explosive speed and sound. They're the fastest game bird in North America. Whereas most game birds take off like a helicopter -- flying straight up at first, then horizontally--ruffed grouse move like a jet plane with a busted rudder. They take off at an acute angle, sputtering loudly and fishtailing.

Wisconsin being shy on moors, the birds' habitats are groves of aspen, pine and maple. That complicates things: Not only does a hunter have to lead his target, he also has to avoid hitting branches and trunks of trees as he turns to fire. Scottish hunters can use shotguns with 32-inch barrels, which provide accuracy at the cost of weight and snap movement. Wisconsin hunters need light, agile shotguns that can be carried all day through thick woods and maneuvered quickly in tight spots.

Sharp-tailed grouse, John James Audubon print, 1837

1 comment:

Janeen said...

We're SE of the Twin Cities in the driftless zone. On our hike today a drumming grouse scared the $*$#@ out of the three of us (two dogs and I). Audie recovered quickly and expressed a desire to pursue. Having no gun - and no license - I called him back.

They are lovely birds and so different from the 'fool hens' I hunted out west when I was young.