Grouse species in Europe


Scientific name: Lagopus mutus Montin 1776
Common names: Rock ptarmigan English
Lagopède alpin, perdix blanche French
Alpenschneehuhn German

female male

Conservation Status
IUCN 2003 ( Lower risk (near threatened).
EU Birds Directive: Annex I

Circumpolar. Arctic and alpine tundra of North America and northern Eurasia. Most of the Arctic coast and islands are inhabited by the species; it retreats from the northernmost Arctic regions during winter. Within Europe, the northernmost populations inhabit northern Greenland and beyond; the southernmost populations are in the Pyrenees. Rock ptarmigan are migratory in large areas of the northern Arctic; in winter they often are nomadic in large flocks. The rock ptarmigan has the widest latitudinal distribution of all grouse species.

Population Size and Trend in Europe
The species still occupies most of its original range; it is relatively secure because of the inaccessibility of its habitat. Some range contractions with local extinctions are known, e.g. from the UK due to global warming or excessive sheep grazing. Population densities vary greatly and often in approx. 10-year cycles; reported figures range between <1 and >60 birds per km².

Habitat and Ecology
The rock ptarmigan inhabits dry tundra and alpine habitats with rocky ridges or outcrops and relatively sparse vegetation dominated by grasses, lichens, and mosses. The rock ptarmigan selects wintering areas that allow access to the ground vegetation, e.g. windswept ridges and slopes. Some populations spend the winter on or close to the breeding habitat; others winter in shrubby areas at or above the treeline or in forest edge habitats. Long-distance southward winter migrations are common for high-latitude populations. Where both species are sympatric, the rock ptarmigan generally occurs at higher elevations and in drier habitats with sparser vegetation than the willow grouse L. lagopus.

Hunting and Cultural Importance
The species is hunted in many parts of its European range. Because of its lower densities and its less accessible habitats, the rock ptarmigan has always been less important as a game bird than the willow grouse.

Principal Threats
In general, the species is well protected by its wide distribution in areas with low human population density. Threats to local populations are mostly related to overhunting and tourism development.
  • Exploitation. Rock ptarmigan are susceptible to overharvesting, especially if hunted in spring, e.g. in the vicinity of settlements. Extinction due to overharvesting is a localised threat, however.
  • Habitat degradation. Loss and degradation of habitats due to tourism developments, such as expansion or upgrading of ski-resorts, have been reported as threats to populations in Europe (Alps, Pyrenees). Direct disturbance related to human presence may displace the birds from wintering areas and may be threatening populations. Negative impacts on habitat quality have been reported from Iceland (erosion of heathlands due to sheep grazing).
  • Collisions with cables. Mortality due to collisions with cables around ski-stations has been reported as a threat in the Alps and the Pyrenees.

[Storch, I. (2000): Grouse Status Survey and Conservation Action
Plan 2000 - 2004. WPA/BirdLife/SSC Grouse Specialist Group. IUCN,
Gland. Switzerland and Cambridge, UK and the World Pheasant
Association, Reading, UK., 112.]