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Will giant pylons mean this is the last dance for iconic Grouse?

They have flown in from miles around to stage their arcane theatre of nature. Gathered in a remote valley, the black cocks hiss their low, burbling song, their lyre-shaped tails turned up over their backs and the glossy froth of white feathers on their backsides puffed out.

Threatening and charging one another, they dash forward and back, leaping high into the air, fluttering furiously. All the while, out of sight in a nearby copse, the grey hens observe the mating ritual passively, waiting for the victor to emerge.

These poetic images offer a rare view of the “lekking” of the black grouse, one of the most beautiful, albeit brazen, sights known to ornithology. Taken last week on Ardverikie Estate in Newtonmore by The Scotsman’s award-winning photographer Ian Rutherford, the pictures show the males performing their annual lek, a vision revered by twitchers.

“The black grouse may not have the most beautiful voice in the British bird world, but it makes up for it with one of the most spectacular courtship displays,” says Paul Stancliffe, spokesman for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the independent scientific research trust which investigates the populations, movements and ecology of wild birds. “A spring visit at dawn to one of these leks still provides what is probably one of the most remarkable visions to be found in Britain’s wild places,” he adds.

The lekking has long been a staple of rural Scotland. Only a few generations ago, the birds were a relatively common sight on the nation’s northern uplands and moors, where they performed their wondrous dance. Now, however, their courtship is rarely seen, their numbers having fallen drastically due to factors including intensive farming and large-scale forestry plantations.

The most recent estimate puts the British population of black grouse lekking males at 5,078. Some two-thirds of the birds exist in Scotland, where there are uplands with a mixture of heath, woodland and shrubs aplenty.

The population has declined by more than a fifth over the past decade. According to the BTO, a century ago London’s birdwatchers could be confident of locating a lek near their home. Now, though, the bird is extinct in many counties of England, and is not found south of the Humber. The species is on the red list of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, meaning it has grave conservation status.

Morag Walker, spokeswoman for the Game Conservancy Trust, said yesterday: “It’s one of our most majestic birds. It’s just hanging on in there, and everybody has to do what they can to save it.”

Although regional recovery projects are working in the Borders, Dumfries & Galloway and Argyll & Bute to establish a sustainable population, the black grouse remains under threat, especially those that flock to Ardverikie.

Three years ago, Scottish Hydro Electric Transmission, a subsidiary of Scottish & Southern Energy , and SP Transmission, a subsidiary of ScottishPower, published a proposed route for a 400,000-volt overhead electricity transmission line to replace the 132,000-volt line stretching from Beauly, west of Inverness, and Denny, west of Falkirk. Since then, a £10 million public inquiry has heard the merits and downsides of the 137-mile line, which would cost £350 million to erect.

The energy companies insist the line is vital to transfer power from green energy initiatives in Scotland’s most northerly regions to markets in the Central Belt and England. Conservationists, however, point to the nuts and bolts of the scheme: some 600 vast pylons, each up to 213ft high, which they claim would forever taint the area’s natural beauty.

More than 18,000 objections have been submitted, and many organisations believe the plan would wreak environmental havoc. It is opposed by the likes of the National Trust for Scotland, the John Muir Trust, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, the Cairngorms National Park Authority and the Ramblers’ Association.

In its submissions to the inquiry, the RSPB has made clear its fears over six lek sites where black grouse congregate, and stressed that only the most carefully chosen route for the power line will suffice.

Roy Tylden-Wright, spokesman for Cairngorms Revolt Against Pylons, one of several pressure groups opposing the scheme, told The Scotsman the black grouse was an iconic part of the Highlands.

“It’s a magnificent bird, and it’s vital to preserve their sustained existence,” he said. “There’s a link between the environment of the area and its status as a major visitor attraction. Our campaign is not simply anti-development. Those of us who stay here and work here believe development can work, but only if it is appropriate.

“There have been proposals for an underground power link, but it’s like the Loch Ness monster – we only see little parts of the scheme at any one time.”

Residents of the enclave, too, fear the worst. Jo Cumming, who runs Laggan Stores, is aghast at the prospect of the steel towers blighting the region. Before moving to the area from England eight years ago, she had been a regular visitor since the late 1960s.

Her store, though in a remote community, is recognisable to many. It doubled as the shop Mackechnies in the much-loved BBC series Monarch of the Glen, which made much use of Laggan and the surrounding district for bringing to life the imagined village of Glenbogle.

Tens of thousands of tourists come by the coachload to witness a reality as breathtaking as the fiction, hoping to glimpse black grouse, ospreys, red deer stags, pine martens and, should they be lucky, a golden eagle.

“The wildlife is one of the most striking things about the area,” Ms Cumming says. “We have always had visitors coming into the shop wondering where they can go to see the wildlife, and we’ll send them to Loch Laggan or Creag Meagaidh.

“But people can’t believe it when we tell them these spectacular views and land are going to be spoiled by these giant pylons.”

Ms Cumming even sells “Welcome to the pylons” holiday souvenir tea towels, a tongue-in-cheek ploy to boost group funds.

Mary Macdonald, who has lived on Ardverikie Estate since 1947, is equally concerned. “We’re all just hoping the power line doesn’t happen,” the 85-year-old explains. “It’s such a wonderful place, and there’s lots of species around. I’ve seen the black grouse lekking down in the field below my house.”

The public inquiry closed at the turn of the year to consider the evidence. Its report is due in the middle of this year, after which Scottish ministers will give their decision on the proposals. For her part, Ms Macdonald is hoping the community she fell in love with as a young woman remains intact.

By Martyn McLaughlin

The Scotsman

21 April 2008