Nature today | Dilemma: Should we let black grouse die in the Netherlands or not?

In the middle of the twentieth century, it is estimated that thousands of grouse lived in our country. Today there are dozens. The animals are only found in the Sallandse Heuvelrug and they are also having a hard time there. The birds have been imported from Sweden every year since 2012, to support the remaining population. The goal is for the species to live on its own once living conditions improve. How important are these efforts?

the problem

As project leader at Staatsb Glosbeheer, Corné Balemans is responsible for nature restoration in the Sallandse Heuvelrug. The biggest problem black grouse faces is excessive nitrogen deposition, he says: “It acidified the soil. The pH of the soil should be at least 4.5, but it’s 2.8 – compared to cleaning vinegar.”

The result is that so few herbs and heather plants grow in the bird’s habitat, that there are not enough insects for the chicks. “The black grouse is an indicator species,” explains senior animal ecologist Meta Rijks, who is responsible for reintroductions and additions at Staatsbudgetheer. “This means that all kinds of elements in the habitat must be intact if it is to complete its life cycle. This animal shows you how the area is going. The bird species have already disappeared and now this threatens the black grouse. If the population is too small, the animals will not find a mate and they will be finished species. We’re trying to prevent that.”

Why add?

An appeal from Sweden saves us time until the domicile is restored. In 2021, Overseas County decided to continue with additional jobs for another five years. Cost: 300 thousand euros. Opponents say it is a waste of money, because some imported animals are eaten by predators. Proponents believe we can – perhaps – preserve black grouse by adding additions. The Netherlands is also obligated to try to do so under the Natura 2000 European Regions legislation. Ultimate responsibility for the conservation of black grouse lies with the County of Overijssel. The bird was included as a target species in the Natura 2000 management plan, so its preservation is currently guaranteed.

Every spring, experts and volunteers travel to Sweden to catch grouse. Mark Zakhuis, ecologist and co-author of “Gewilde Dieren” about the book’s reintroduction, went twice. “The hunting is done in the early morning. The animals are checked by a vet and released within 24 hours in the Sallandse Heuvelrug.” Do birds get nervous from transportation? Mark: “They certainly don’t like it, but I think the inconvenience is acceptable. In the back of the car I heard roosters screeching to impress others of this kind. A sign that it was hormonal and not stress-driven.”

Is transporting animals responsible?

Soon after spawning, grouse is vulnerable. They do not yet know where to hide and when they explore the terrain they are relatively easy prey. Meta: “After the first weeks, the mortality rate drops rapidly and the remaining newcomers engage in breeding. All goes well, until the chicks are born and the lack of food appears. The chicks depend on insects for the first weeks, after which they slowly switch to plant food. We checked Young dead and weak from malnutrition. The clutch will survive if the hen finds one of the rare places with enough food.”

Can you remove animals from their environment and expose them to these risks? Meta: “We mainly choose strong young birds. In addition, the Swedish government is watching critically and we have received a permit again.” Cornet sees the social debate growing in Sweden: “We had a permit for five years in the first round, and now it is two.” It does not represent the removal of twenty to thirty animals per year A problem for the population in Sweden, says Mark: “We don’t see a drop in numbers at baiting sites. Thousands of grouse are shot every year in Sweden. But it is possible that the permit will not be renewed again, then we can consider cooperation with the Baltic states, where healthy residents also live. ”

Why not accept extinction rather than return?

Wouldn’t it be better now to accept the disappearance of black grouse from Holland and reintroduce the species after habitat restoration? “It has not yet been achieved anywhere in Europe,” says Mita. “It has to do with the behavior of the animals. If you release the grouse in a place with no limiters, they will fly in all directions and no longer meet. So there is no chance of re-introduction.” Mark agrees, “Newcomers need to know what animals are there in order to survive.”

What is happening in the meantime to restore habitat?

On dry sandy soils, the use of rock flour is the only effective measure against acidification. Of the 1,300 hectares of dry desert land in the Sallandse Heuvelrug, 300 hectares have been treated with this, about 200 hectares of which have been exported this year. The scale is still experimental. “Initial results in other nature reserves are positive,” Cornet says. But the signal only turns green when the long-term effects are known. And then the money should be there, too.”

Other measures in the Sallandse Heuvelrug include increasing the number of hectares of dry arid land, mowing, burning, cutting and small-scale grass in order to have more difference in age and stratification of plants. Trees are also cut down to create open ground so that grouse is less predatory by predators. The latter provokes resistance: by no means everyone thinks that cutting down trees to save bird species is a good idea. Cornet: “It is understood that because of the climate problem, more trees are really needed, but conservation of biodiversity is also important. It is up to the government to make choices. What we can do is to better explain why change in the landscape is sometimes necessary and that After the logging stage it is different, but it is often also more beautiful and diverse.”

group of protest

Do you want to keep adding?

Restorative measures slow habitat degradation, but reducing nitrogen emissions really helps. Cornet: “Even if the government introduces source measures tomorrow, the consequences of excessive nitrogen will only diminish significantly within six to ten years.” Mark is more optimistic: “You can measure rock dust in plants after three years, and then you can gradually expect more weed richness and therefore more insects.”

Although Corné is seeing signs of recovery in healthy landscapes, black grouse numbers have not yet grown. That’s why Meta is happy that the county continues to add extras: “This bird belongs here.” Mark also describes the counties’ support as positive: “On the other hand, so far the government has prioritized companies that emit a lot of nitrogen. Then the survey continues with the tap turned on. I hope we can make adjustments in time.”

Or another…?

Mark: “It may be too late for black grouse. There are also arguments for allowing the animal to go extinct. Our country is on the southern border of its habitat, it’s probably very hot and dry here. I also think that nature reserves should in principle self-reliant. You don’t want That animals depend on humans for so long. But it was man who caused these problems. This project illustrates the costs of restoring nature: If you destroy too much, the bill will be high. We owe it to ourselves to try to conserve grouse. Plus, we can learn lessons from this project in protecting other endangered species, such as the skydome and partridge.”

Even if we can’t save the protest, says Meta, the investment is worth it. “Many other species benefit from measures in the area, such as the nightgar, the gravel, the sand lizard, and the blue-winged grasshopper. Thanks to the essential qualities of black grouse, we learn whether we are pressing the right buttons through nature restoration.”

Text and photos: StaatsbosbeHer

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