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Capercaillie

Male capercaillie displaying at lek in pinewoods

Image: Chris Gomersall

Capercaillie populations have shown hopeful signs of starting to recover. However, they are very vulnerable and could still be lost from the UK in the next couple of decades. Management is helping to ensure that we don't lose this magnificent bird again.

Most of the capercaillie remaining in Scotland are found in Strathspey – with a significant proportion of the population on RSPB nature reserves. 

Species status 

  • Phase of recovery: Recovery 
  • Red list Bird of Conservation Concern 
  • UK BAP lead partner – the RSPB/the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology      

The rise and fall of the capercaillie

It is believed that capercaillie became extinct in England in the 17th century and the last known record of a native capercaillie in Scotland was in 1785. The birds disappeared because of extensive felling of forests. 

In the 19th century more forests were planted and capercaillie were successfully re-introduced from 1837 onwards. They quickly recolonised the pinewoods of northern Scotland and their numbers grew to a peak in the early 1900s. The demand for wood during the two World Wars meant that much suitable capercaillie habitat was destroyed. Consequently, the number of birds fell and, although there was some increase in numbers in the 1960s, by 1999 only 1,000 birds remained. 

What was the problem?

The decline in capercaillie numbers over the last 30 years has resulted from poor breeding. The lack of food at crucial times in the breeding cycle, as a result of climate-induced changes, may be a factor in these failures. 

However, the effects of this have been compounded by: 

  • limited food for young capercaillie because of grazing of shrubs such as blaeberry by deer 
  • capercaillie dying as a result of flying into forest fences 
  • foxes and crows, which eat capercaillie and their eggs 
  • disturbance by people and some unsympathetic forest management.       

Scotland is not the only place to experience such declines. Capercaillie populations have also been falling in countries in central Europe, such as Switzerland. Large populations still exist in Scandinavia and northern Russia, but even these are declining. 

Graph showing changes in capercaillie population. 1970-2004

Image: The RSPB

Identifying the problem 

Capercaillie have been studied by the RSPB and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) to monitor breeding success and survival in forests across the range. 

This quickly identified problems with breeding and collisions with deer fences. The studies found that capercaillie chicks need a diet rich in invertebrates, such as caterpillars, and that blaeberry was the best habitat for chicks. This habitat was scarce in many forests because of heavy grazing by deer. 

Fences, put up to keep deer out of pine woods and forestry plantations, proved to be a significant problem, with many birds flying into them and dying. Predation by crows also limited breeding success at the RSPB’s Abernethy reserve. 

Partnership approach proves effective 

The RSPB bought the Forest Lodge Estate at Abernethy in 1988 and since then has been heavily involved in conserving capercaillie. Work was undertaken to restore the habitat, crows and foxes were controlled and fences were removed or marked to make them more visible to the birds. The number of capercaillie subsequently increased to 100 birds. 

Work in one single forest would not help the capercaillie as there are no Scottish forests big enough to support a viable population of the birds on their own. However, the RSPB’s Abernethy reserve has proved a valuable example for conservation work throughout Scotland. 

Conservation work on a large scale is now being carried out at all the key sites for capercaillie in Scotland, based on what has been learnt at Abernethy and on research work carried out by the CEH and the RSPB. This work accords with the forests being used commercially and for recreation. 

Conservation work for the capercaillie has benefited from EU funding. More than £215 million is directly supporting jobs in forestry throughout rural Scotland. The capercaillie is probably not the only species to benefit, as managing the woodlands for them, particularly thinning, should increase the diversity of other vertebrates, such as small mammals, and invertebrates too, from wood ants to pinewood beetles. 

The future for capercaillie 

More than 50,000 hectares of native pinewoods have been planted, with the support of Forestry Commission Scotland. The network of capercaillie Natura sites (Special Protection Areas) is also being expanded by the Scottish Executive – so capercaillie should have more suitable habitat in future. 

All the key forests for capercaillie are now being managed with the birds in mind, and the RSPB will continue to provide advice until the capercaillie population is secure. The main difficulty ahead for these birds may be the damaging impact that the weather can have during the breeding season. However, we hope that by improving the habitat there will be more food and shelter to help chicks to survive in bad weather. 

Acknowledgements

Much of the work for capercaillie has been funded by EU-Life. Partners in the Capercaillie BAP Group are Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (Joint lead partner), Scottish Natural Heritage, Forestry Commission Scotland, Scottish Rural Property and Business Association, Game Conservancy Trust, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, Forestry and Timber Association, Deer Commission for Scotland, and Dr Robert Moss. Project partners carry out work and/or provide co-financing to the project. We would also like to thank innumerable forest owners and land managers, and enthusiastic individuals too numerous to mention.

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