The latest UK survey of Capercaillie, carried out last winter, estimates there to be only 1114 individuals – six years ago the estimate was higher at 1285 individuals. We can regard this as a more-or-less stable population, given the inherent difficulties of counting this species. The press release from RSPB, SNH and Cairngorms National Park doesn’t give the confidence intervals for the population estimates so I’m guessing a bit! But it’s not a very positive result or a very positive outlook (despite the quotes below).
Nick Wilkinson, RSPB Conservation Scientist, said: ‘The considerable conservation effort that has been directed at capercaillie for over two decades now has helped to prevent further population decline, and indeed has made a second extinction of this species from Scotland less likely. The country’s capercaillie population has fluctuated between 1000 and 2000 birds since the first national survey in the 1990s, but it’s now very much at the low end of this scale. Capercaillie are restricted to only a few areas of the country and most are found in Strathspey, which highlights the importance of innovative conservation work in this area, in partnership with others, for their population to recover.‘.
Sue Haysom, Policy and Advice Officer with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), said: ‘Vital conservation work such as establishing rich feeding areas for adults and chicks, promoting woodland creation in the right locations to increase habitat, and carrying out targeted predator control around breeding sites has already brought benefits. Now we need to build on this with energy and innovative approaches developed by experts and local communities to ensure that future generations can experience this magnificent bird.’.
Andy Ford, Cairngorms Nature Manager said: ‘People are key to securing the future of capercaillie in the National Park. We want to empower people to be inspired to get involved. The project implements the Cairngorms Capercaillie Framework, a blueprint for a strategic approach to saving the capercaillie from going extinct in the UK through targeting future management at a landscape scale. We hope to develop a programme of conservation action to support the long-term survival of the species and provide a model to save ‘at risk’ species in National Parks around the world.’.
The main reasons for the declines in Capercaillie numbers have been low breeding success and an increase in deaths from collisions with deer fences. The latter has been addressed by marking fences, decreasing their height and removing them but there remains work to do on this issue.
Improving nesting success is more complex as it is probably affected by several factors.
Breeding success is known to be adversely affected by high rainfall in June, when the chicks hatch, and wetter summers have become more frequent, probably because of climate change.
Predation is also an issue; by Foxes and Pine Martens.
Capercaillie only raise lots of chicks in dry years when they coincide with years of low predation.
There is also growing evidence that human disturbance can be an issue as it causes Capercaillie to avoid using large areas of otherwise suitable woodland – limiting the potential for population recovery.
Although all three of the quotes above mention the role of people and collaboration it seems to me that if climate change is soaking Capercaillie chicks more and more then that is not something that the local populace will be able to do much about, although it is possible that structural changes to the habitat might mitigate climate change impacts.
The Capercaillie, magnificent beast though it is, is still clearly in danger of UK extinction. I wish it well.