Soaked to UK extinction?

Photo: Dave Braddock


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.


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14 Replies to “Soaked to UK extinction?”

  1. So despite the population dynamics of Capercaillie clearly being influenced by a variety of factors the SNH feels that it is necessary to directly mention the role predator control in their press release. We have seen this again and again, from a variety of source and I feel that this sends out a strong signal that for these ‘prey’ species to survive / thrive this artificial level of predator control is required / desirable. This is at best disingenuous.

    1. If predator control has been used in the conservation management of Capercaillie it would be disingenuous to pretend that it hasn't.
      I don't think we advance the case of conservation by pretending that predator control is never necessary or appropriate - that just provides a stick for the likes of You Forgot the Birds to beat the conservation community with. Targeted predator control is used by reputable conservation bodies to protect vulnerable species such as nesting terns and, apparently, Capercaillie but that is a world away from the shooting industry's deplorable efforts to eliminate all predators from huge areas of the countryside.
      Clearly it is important that any public statements about this should be carefully and sensitively worded to avoid giving the impression that widespread or generalised "control" of predators is desirable or required but I don't think that the SNH statement fails in this.

      1. The disingenuity that I refer to is that so often in these type of releases one could be forgiven for thinking that the single tangible action to be taken is killing predators.

        I understand that in some circumstances this is a valid management technique, however let us not forget that we are talking about wild animals that have presumably evolved survival strategies against what are naturally occurring predators. I just feel that controlling predators is a lot more ‘straightforward’ than having to deal with a myriad of complex factors that frankly are beyond the control of any single management plan.

        1. Well, possibly 'disingenuous' was a poor choice of word. I think it is very important that conservation bodies remain open and honest - if they are not and they get caught out it simply provides the opportunity for the defenders of illegal raptor persecution to deflect the discussion away from the actual issues and to adopt a spurious moral high ground.
          I would agree that predator control is potentially an easy option with respect to the protection of rare species and not necessarily the only or the most appropriate conservation action. Clearly for true conservationists it should be a last resort - in contrast to the gamekeeper approach where it is first, second and last resort.
          The likes of SNH, Natural England and the RSPB should not deny that legitimate predator control sometimes takes place but should ensure that there is good public understanding of the fact that most species have complex needs and that eliminating all predators from large areas as practiced by the grouse shooting industry is not necessary or desirable.

    2. Not to hand at the moment, but I recently read a horrendous report in a back issue of the Scottish Ornithologist Club's newsletter on capercaillie being killed in snares. There were reports of dead caper being found within a day of them being set. Some keepers were decent enough to report these incidents anonymously and take the snares away, how many never did? Capercaillie seem to have a serious predilection for putting their necks through snares, the article said there was only one report of a black grouse snare death, but with caper there were estates where they were repeatedly found strangled.

      This must have tipped the balance firmly against them and if increased deer fencing (usually a cop out with natural tree regeneration due to political difficulties of culling red deer) has been a negative factor then what about the contribution snare use has had - has there been more use of snares since capercaillie started their decline? Indeed predator control may have been responsible for this magnificent bird's decline, but due to the presence not absence of. There was one noted project where capercaillie and black grouse populations recovered through habitat management with no killing of predators - in fact the return of some of them was believed to help through inter guild predation and competition. The honesty of that report and its author were questioned and smeared by a certain group who like to look silly in tweed and deer stalkers. The return of lynx, eagles and goshawks are more likely to be the true resolution to any predation problems, if they exist at all, but the predator haters don't want that which makes them hypocrites of the first order.

      1. I think the paper you are referring to is one I co-wrote with a former gamekeeper who was appalled at the unreported consequences for caper of misusing snares around leks and in caper forests. The paper is 'Cosgrove, P. and Oswald, J. 2001. Capercaillie captures in snares. Scottish Birds 22: 40-42'.

        1. I think you're right Peter. It was a cracking paper - I had heard from a commentator on RPUK that the last male capercaillie on one estate died in a snare so I knew of the issue, but thought it would be an infrequent event. The article dispelled that notion and made my jaw drop. There's been one hell of a silence over the possibility of snare use being a contributor to the caper's decline, especially from the keepering fraternity who have also downplayed what deer fencing does to them and black grouse - which is to a very large extent due to refusal to cull enough deer to make truly natural woodland regeneration viable without it. One way or another real conservation in so much of Scotland is well and truly buggered up by the tweed twits.

    3. To be fair, as the population declines (be-it Capercaillie or most anything else), natural predation, particularly from opportunistic predators that don't rely on single-species prey, does have a greater bearing as the remaining population is less able to absorb what would be recoverable if the population density was stonger. If the predator/prey abundance was intrinsically linked you'd see a top-down reduction in both. With opportunistic predation and and a reduced abundance of one prey species the balance isn't natural as the Capercaillie's abundance would be higher in a purely natural environment.

  2. As I was fortunate to watch a cock displaying for over an hour this year disturbance was a factor as for 14 minutes the bird froze due to disturbance from a public footpath. The actual disturbance only happened for around 2 minutes but it was enough for the bird to freeze for 14 minutes. I left the area with the bird still displaying!

    Another threat not mentioned is the planning application which could double the size of Aviemore! The extra disturbance could remove the caper completely from these woods. This wet weather is also having an effect on Black Grouse for the same reason. No point blaming predation when the chicks are dying due to being soaked.

  3. I am a strong supporter of re-wilding Britain, the beaver being a good example. But what effect would the proposed introduction of wolves and lynx into Scotland have on the population have on the Capercaillie?

    1. If anything probably a beneficial effect. One ten year study in the French Jura found evidence that lynx there had in the course of ten years eaten 37 foxes and one capercaillie. So if fox populations depress caper numbers then lynx should help them by preying on foxes even if they eat the occasional caper. Goshawk can be partial to grouse, but also like eating corvids. Again if there is a problem caused by crows or foxes it didn't exist before probably due to the presence of a wider range of predators. We could have most of them back very easily, the real problem is political not ecological or practical.

  4. Might the original Scottish Caper’s mid 18th century extinction have been exacerbated by the Little Ice Age (1645-1715) with its increased storminess (therefore increased rainfall) especially in the Highlands? Or was it much more about a centuries old exploitation of the native Scots pinewoods, peaking by the late 18th to early 19th century?

    The present Scottish Capers are descended from 1837 reintroductions. They came from Sweden which has dry continental weather….


  6. @Ben - thought crossed my mind too! 'head starting' capper chicks should help in years of low 'natural' productivity. the expertise is out there in the keeper community and community 'ownership' of breeding programme may go some way to reducing some of issue mentioned above...
    Btw Anthony Buxton's Book 'Happy Year - the Days of a fisherman Naturalist' - Collins 1950 has a very good chapter on capper reintroduction in 1837 by one of his ancestors Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton.


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