Black grouse Tetrao tetrix, adult male on lek. Corrimony RSPB reserve. Scotland.

Watching endangered grouse

Please follow these guidelines in addition to the Birdwatchers' Code of Conduct, and always ensure that you have the landowner's permission before entering private land.

At risk of extinction

The black grouse and capercaillie are in serious trouble. Numbers are now so low in the UK that they are at risk of extinction in many areas: the capercaillie could be lost from Britain within the next two decades. 

These birds need all the help they can get, so as birdwatchers, it is vital that we take our responsibilities seriously and avoid harming these wonderful but scarce birds.

Conservation groups and leading birdwatching magazines have drawn up this code of conduct. We want everyone to enjoy the countryside and its birdlife and hope that everyone who wishes to see the black grouse and capercaillie will observe this code. 

Patience and respecting the needs of the birds will often be rewarded with good views.

Disappearing grouse

Population declines are being tackled by:

  • encouraging appropriate grazing by sheep and deer
  • increasing habitat quality
  • removing or marking deer fences
  • discouraging fox snares, which are known to kill the capercaillie
  • reducing rates of predation

Many conservation organisations and private landowners are working hard to help these birds, through the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Shooting the capercaillie is now illegal and there is a voluntary moratorium on shooting black grouse. However, the declines continue in many areas and the black grouse and capercaillie need all the help we can give them. You can help too, when watching or photographing them.

Black grouse and capercallies lek at traditional sites as part of their mating ritual, generally in the spring. The lek is essential to the birds' breeding success, but they are easily disturbed here. If this happens in the key period of April to early May, the birds may not mate at all.

Grouse are also vulnerable when nesting, rearing young and during severe winter weather.

Black grouse Tetrao tetrix, adult male on lek. Corrimony RSPB reserve. Scotland

Watching black grouse

  • Black grouse lek for much of the year, the key period being April and May.
  • Watch leks and feeding birds from a vehicle. Black grouse pay little attention to stationary vehicles which are at least 100 metres away. Ensure that you do not block access or disturb nearby residents. Avoid approaching a lek on foot, which usually disturbs the birds.
  • Arrive at leks before daybreak. A vehicle stopping once it is light can disturb the birds. Stay in your vehicle and watch quietly through binoculars and telescopes. Get the flask of coffee from the boot before your vigil. Don't start the engine until after lekking has wound down, usually about two hours after dawn. Alternatively, consider watching a lek in the evening.
  • Keep to footpaths, especially between May and August, when there may be nesting females and young birds present.
  • Keep dogs under control (on a lead) when close to black grouse habitat and do not bring dogs into the field when you are watching grouse.

Watching the capercaillie

  • The capercaillie is listed on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981. This makes it illegal to intentionally or recklessly disturb birds when nesting.
  • The RSPB provides opportunities to watch capercaillies lekking from its Osprey Centre at RSPB Abernethy Forest nature reserve, Strathspey, during April and May. Telephone 01479 821409. Away from here, capercaillie leks should not be visited at all during the crucial April-May period.
  • Capercaillies can be easier to see in autumn (from September), as there are usually more birds once juveniles have fledged.
  • Capercaillies are less disturbed by vehicles than by walkers; if you have vehicular access to a forest, remain inside with the engine switched off and observe birds quietly until they have moved back into the forest.
  • Use well-defined tracks and paths, to which birds will often come in search of grit. Do not wander in heather and blaeberry/bilberry, especially between May and August when nesting hens and young birds may be present. Flushing them can split up broods, exposing them to predators, or cause birds to fly into fences. Every year, deer fences kill an estimated quarter of juvenile capercaillies.
  • For the best chance of seeing capercaillies, book with a reputable Scottish wildlife tour company, which may have special arrangements with private estates and experience of showing capercaillies to visitors. 

Thank you

We hope Britain's birdwatchers will support this code. We are all working to ensure that the black grouse and capercaillie continue to inspire wonder. So we must present a responsible image to others, particularly those on whose support their future may rest.

Please help this effort by being responsible and sensible when looking for these birds. You can also help by providing the details of any lek counts (with grid references) to the relevant county bird recorder.