RESEARCH has revealed the future is finally looking better for a rare game bird – although it is still suffering mixed fortunes in the north of England.

Black grouse suffered a devastating decline in their population last year – but the beleaguered upland birds are fighting back.

Early morning spring counts by researchers from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust show bird numbers are gaining strength in its North Pennines and Yorkshire Dales stronghold.

Encouraging estimates show that last year’s population of only 500 males has risen to 820 this spring – but elsewhere the news is grim.

In north-west Northumberland, their numbers have fallen from 100 males in 2002 to only six this spring – and they are now facing imminent extinction in the area.

Overall, the trust welcomed the figures and described them as a credit to the large amount of conservation work carried out over the past 15 years.

However, the trust’s black grouse project officer, Fran Atterton, admitted further work was necessary to safeguard the bird for the future.

She said: “We have recently launched a ‘Woodlands for black grouse’ project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, to encourage landowners to establish small pockets of woodland to provide an emergency food source and cover in severe winters.”

Another boost for the fragile black grouse population in the Yorkshire Dales, where numbers have increased from 90 to 131 males, has been a successful translocation trial, involving moving males away from the core of their range to fringe areas.

Trust scientist Dr Phil Warren said: “The results of this trial have certainly been heartening because it is helping them to expand their range into former haunts. We are now seeing males carrying out their unforgettable mating display in areas where they have been absent for 15 years or more.”

The fortunes of black grouse were affected by a series of weather-related setbacks in recent years.

After celebrating a high of 1,200 males in spring 2007, the wet June weather in both 2007 and 2008 caused high mortality in newly-hatched chicks.

That was compounded by the exceptional snowfall and freezing temperatures of winter 2009-10, causing the population in northern England to crash to an all-time low of 500 males.