The capercaillie is an iconic species of the Highlands, and although everyone loves them there is a lot of argument as to what to do for them and where. But, we need concerted action to ensure the species’ continued survival in Scotland.
The latest population estimate for capercaillie in Scotland (and The UK) is 1228 birds based upon data from the 2010/11 national survey. Increasingly the population of capercaillie has become restricted to Badenoch and Strathspey in Inverness-shire, with an estimated 75% of the population present there. The long term trends from lek surveys (counts at display grounds) in the spring between 2005-11 indicate that capercaillie populations in the core area of Strathspey remain largely stable, or indeed slightly increasing. But at what is now the edge of its range, particularly in Deeside and Perthshire, there is real concern that the species may become extinct. The population of capercaillie on Deeside in 2011 has been estimated at only 20 displaying males, this in one of its former strongholds. Indeed in 1990 an incomplete survey found 82 lekking birds on Deeside, with a population total of greater than 300 birds. Something is seriously wrong.
In Strathspey, there are some notable success stories. The capercaillie population at RSPB Scotland’s nature reserve at Abernethy has grown from 15 cocks on the land purchased in 1989, to some 25 cocks over recent years (and a further 12 on more recently purchased land), and is stable. The reserve now holds more than 10% of the Scottish capercaillie population. There are also heartening population increases of the species on some of our neighbours’ land, including Rothiemurchus Estate. The Forestry Commission has carried out significant habitat management on its Strathspey landholdings and it would seem that the capercaillie populations there are responding well. I am also encouraged to see the Caledonian pinewood restoration work at Glenfeshie Estate, which will in time create excellent conditions for this species.
Much scientific research has now been carried out by RSPB, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) and others (supported by SNH and FCS) into the factors determining capercaillie populations. This critical, peer-reviewed evidence base is now being used to inform best land management practices. In general, we know from this work that capercaillie breed best in semi-natural pinewoods or sympathetically managed Scots Pine plantations with a rich blaeberry field layer where legal crow control is practiced and deer populations are maintained at low levels without recourse to deer fences. Over the last 10 years, it is undoubtedly the case that the removal or high-visibility marking of deer fences has had the biggest single conservation benefit for the species. After research showed that marking of fences could reduce fatal collision rates by 64%, over 130km of deer fence was marked and 87km was removed (including 23km at Abernethy Forest), and following this it is not surprising that the national capercaillie survey carried out in 2003/04 showed that the headlong decline of the species since the 1970s had stopped. Despite the quality of this joint research its all too common to hear some stalkers representatives claiming that fence strikes are not an issue. They are!
The landscape context of capercaillie forests is also crucial. Forests favoured by capercaillie tend to be over 500ha in size and closely connected with other suitable woods. Where woods are small and fragmented, the impact of generalist predators such as fox, crow and pine marten is all the greater, and long-term conservation management should aim to reverse the fragmented state of capercaillie woods, thus in turn reducing the impact of predators.
In the same vein, recent research by RSPB at Abernethy and Glenmore Forests has shown that human disturbance of the forests along access roads and tracks can have a major impact on capercaillie with between 20 and 40% of the forest area rendered unavailable to feeding birds. The population impacts of this are not known, but may be very significant. A capercaillie must maintain a high input of food, and additional activity such as escape-flights in response to human disturbance may compromise this. Good management for capercaillie is likely to mean maintaining substantial quiet areas, especially in the early Spring, with protection from high levels of recreational disturbance.
Based on the need to work at a landscape scale for capercaillie, 25 private Highland estates and RSPB Scotland came together in a successful European Union LIFE bid, which resulted in a significant amount of new money being levered into positive land management for capercaillie. This project ran from 2002 to 2007 and supported habitat management, legal predator control (and gamekeepers jobs) and removal of deer fencing. More recently land management for capercaillie on private land has been supported by the Scottish Rural Development Programme, and the Scottish Natural Heritage Species Action Framework, using prescriptions developed by RSPB Scotland and GWCT.
We believe that with the right conditions, informed by the best research, the capercaillie population can increase again over the next few years. This will only happen through a partnership between the private, non governmental and statutory sectors. In some parts of Scotland, notably Deeside, there is real concern that if there are not improvements in habitat condition; reduction in deer numbers; and the removal of more of the killer deer fencing, that capercaillie will soon disappear. In 2002, a joint (Government) agency working programme was put in place in Deeside to deliver conservation action for capercaillie, however progress has been far too slow. Indeed has anything happened other than the further decline of caper? Much attention on Deeside has been diverted to arguments about predation, rather than getting rid of fences (or marking them) and creating the large scale habitat networks capercaillie require. It would be ironic and sad if on these famous sporting estates, caper were to be lost.