Roger Ratcliffe: Country & Coast

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It was perched atop a drystone wall on one of the highest passes over the Dales. The world’s leading cyclists will be sweating their way up the same road in July during the Grand Départ, but on a quiet April evening there was just me and this beautiful male black grouse.

For more than a minute it sat there flaunting its glossy blue-black plumage and fiery red eye wattle as if fully aware that its lone watcher considered the experience a rare privilege. Then suddenly it launched itself from the wall and flew off with a series of rapid wing beats, followed by a long glide downhill until finally consumed by long shadows spreading over the high pastures.

It was an encounter to savour. There are now precious few black grouse left in Yorkshire, where the bird used to be fairly common and was often known by country folk as the moorcock. You can see how wide its distribution was in Victorian times by pubs named The Moorcock in locations as far apart as Garsdale on the Settle-Carlisle railway line, Norland near Sowerby Bridge and Waddington in the Forest of Bowland. But by the late 20th century its population was dwindling at the rate of ten per cent a year, and these days it’s found in the most northerly parts of the Dales and - its English strongholds - in Upper Teesdale and Weardale.

A few small groups are known to exist in Wensleydale and Coverdale, and around Beckermonds. Langstrothdale. Dr Phil Warren of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, who has studied black grouse in the Dales for almost 20 years, says the species is slowly but surely expanding its range. The one I saw on the Kidstones Pass may be evidence of their spread.

Thanks to work by Dr Warren and his colleagues the bird’s preferred habitat, on the edges of moorland and forestry plantations, has been improved, leading to population growth in the Dales and North Pennines. However, a setback followed the series of wash-out summers that began in 2007.

A few years ago Dr Warren showed me the black grouse’s extraordinary dawn ritual known as a “lek”. It involved getting up at stupid o’clock to meet in near darkness on a cold hillside above Arkengarthdale. Eventually, we heard a deep bubbling sound emanating from the hay meadow in which 15 elegant male black grouse were strutting to try and win one of four females - known as greyhens - for mating. As the light increased we saw the males fan up their lyre-shaped tails to display a rosette of white feathers and perform ‘flutter jumps’. It reminded me of those guys dancing to attract girls in the film Saturday Night Fever. But watching them in that cold Dales dawn, it felt more like Monday Morning Hypothermia.