Rare Birds Perform Mating Dance on MOD Firing Range

Black grouse birds are taking to the firing range at Garelochhead Training Centre in Scotland, where the short grassland offers an ideal location for the males to get their groove on with a unique mating dance called the 'lek'.

From dawn, the 'rookoo' sound of the iconic Scottish birds can be heard echoing through Garelochhead Training Centre and the surrounding uplands. With their distinctive red eyebrows and white under-tail feathers, the birds are a special sight for local birdwatchers and military personnel alike.

The males come onto the short grass areas at dawn and dusk to attract females watching from the longer grass nearby, as well as engaging in the occasional spirited scuffle with rivals.

The firing range, which sees personnel taking aim at targets from various distances, is a carefully-mown area of grass maintained by DIO's industry partner Landmarc Support Services (Landmarc). It not only provides an ideal environment for live fire training, but has also proved an attractive habitat for black grouse.

Despite finding a haven at Garelochhead, the black grouse is one of the fastest declining birds in the UK, and is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species. Driven by climate change and differences in land management, the birds have been moving further north as their favourite upland heath-land habitats become scarcer. Their adoption of the Garelochhead range is a positive step for black grouse conservation in the region.

Lottie Birch, DIO Ecologist (Scotland and Northern Ireland) said:

Protecting the environment and supporting nature recovery is a vital part of DIO's role in managing the UK Defence Training Estate.

Like many of our Scottish sites, Garelochhead Training Centre is an area of unique natural beauty and rich ecological diversity. While on first impression a military firing range might seem an unlikely habitat for wildlife, it's no exaggeration to say that Garelochhead hosts the best black grouse dance floor in central Scotland!

Through continued collaboration between DIO, Landmarc, and regional conservationists, we will continue to protect and conserve the diverse range of species that call the site home, while supporting military training activities.

To gain a detailed understanding of the various bird species across the training area, DIO and Landmarc commissioned a survey of breeding birds at Garelochhead Training Centre in 2023. It was conducted by John Simpson, a former MOD Police officer specialising in wildlife crime, who today works as a full-time ornithologist with Wild Caledonia Wildlife Surveys. The survey forms part of DIO's ongoing environmental monitoring of Defence landholdings in Scotland.

In total, over 70 species were recorded during the survey, of which 48 species are believed to be breeding. The data from the survey - including the birds' conservation status, habitat requirements and land management requirements - is being used by DIO's ecologists to help protect and maintain habitats across the training area, in careful balance with the site's military training activities.

Bird species recorded at Garelochhead Training Centre include the osprey; sparrowhawk; Eurasian curlew; whinchat; grasshopper warbler and peregrine falcon, as well as several species of owl.

The Earl of Minto, Minister of State for Defence, said:

It is wonderful that we are protecting this iconic Scottish bird while supporting our Armed Forces' essential training activities. From feathers to firearms, up and down the nation we are conserving diverse habitats on our training estate while keeping the UK safe.

John Simpson, ornithologist, Wild Caledonia Wildlife Surveys said:

After conducting a breeding bird survey for DIO and Landmarc, it soon became apparent that Garelochhead Training Centre is an exceptional site for nature.

The diversity and population density of many species, some of which are of conservation concern, is superb. The survey has led to a collaborative and coordinated approach to land management in balance with military training activity.

DIO's Defence Training Estate and ecology teams, along with regional conservationists, work together proactively at Garelochhead, balancing the needs of conservation with national defence requirements. The range provides a wonderful black grouse lekking area, and coordinated action ensures that areas are protected to give the best chance of nesting success.

Safe public access to Garelochhead Training Centre

Access to Garelochhead Training Centre is permitted when live firing is not taking place. When red flags or lamps are not displayed, access may be taken across the site, with the exception of the fenced-off impact area, which is signed appropriately.

To safely visit Garelochhead Training Centre, visitors should follow these simple steps:

  • check Garelochhead live firing times on GOV.UK
  • stick to public footpaths and bridleways
  • take notice of red flags, red lights and signage which indicate access is prohibited
  • never touch military debris on the ground - report it for safe removal
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