Science wants to save the ‘forest horse’

Advanced genetic research is underway to save Scotland’s most famous bird from extinction.

The grouse population has declined by more than 90% in the past 50 years.

The decline continues.

In the past six years alone, the population has fallen by a third.

Most of Scotland’s remaining 700 birds can now only be found in the Cairngorms.

Because the numbers are so low, researchers believe grouse are at risk of genetic suffocation.

In response, a team from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland began analyzing DNA samples as part of a project funded by the National Lottery.

Dr. Alexander Ball said: “Understanding the genetic diversity of British grouse is critical to their long-term survival and resistance to threats.

Our research will determine whether the conservation method should focus on increasing the gene pool rather than simply increasing the number.

“We will use a new technology that will increase our ability to work with the degraded DNA fragments found in the sources.”

A black grouse appears in Cairngorm National Park. Photo: Mark Hamblin

The team, based in a lab at Edinburgh Zoo, obtained DNA from feather stems collected at Cairngorms.

Carolyn Robertson, Cairngorms Capercaillie Project Manager, said: “A small army of people responded to our call for help.

“Trained rangers, rangers, stalkers, rangers, environmentalists, and volunteers carefully collected more than 1,000 feathers to send to the lab.”

In addition, DNA samples have been taken from Sweden, Poland, Germany, Austria, Norway and the French Pyrenees, where numbers are also declining.

The goal is to find out the genetic differences between grouse in Scotland and elsewhere.

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Black grouse feathers were collected by the local community.  Photo: The Capercaillie Project at Cairngorms.
Black grouse feathers were collected by the local community. Photo: The Capercaillie Project at Cairngorms.

Caroline added: “This method of analysis has not been used before in the preservation of capercaillie.

“This will greatly assist the management of these birds in the UK and could also pave the way for future conservation projects abroad.”

The researchers also aim to obtain DNA samples from ancient Scottish grouse for comparison with the current population.

These specimens usually come from the toe pads of historical specimens now preserved for display.

Owners of private collections have already been contacted across Scotland.

However, anyone with a protest is requested to contribute to the investigation by sending an email to [email protected]

The bird is about the size of a turkey and is the largest member of the grouse family.

Each spring they gather in designated areas of pine trees for mating.

The guys perform an unusual courtship performance called theatrical (Old Norse means “dance”).

This involves retracting the head and fanning the tail.

Males also make strange sounds such as hissing and hissing.

These strange little sounds of birds led to the grouse being called the “forest horse”.

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Megan Vasquez

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