Fears for capercaillie’s future

Scotland’s gamekeepers fear the iconic capercaillie is doomed unless conservationists advising government agencies tackle pine marten predation.

Despite an assurance by First Minister Alex Salmond that the capercaillie would not be allowed to “die on his watch”, gamekeepers fear extinction is close.

While individual birds exist in fragmented pockets, the only remaining viable breeding population exists in Badenoch and Strathspey.

And while better weather in 2013 is expected to show fragile productivity increases, gamekeepers expect those gains to be offset by predation in the coming months.

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) warned 12 years ago that increased predation, by pine marten, foxes and crows would imperil the largest member of the grouse family.

A scientific study in 2009, using cameras at 20 nests, showed predators destroying 65 percent of those nests in Abernethy forest, part of a reserve run by RSPB.

Of those destroyed, 57 per cent were proven to be by pine marten, which, like the capercaillie, is legally protected.

Members of the Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) group for capercaillie have acknowledged the need for a trial removal of pine marten from core areas to assess the problem.

So far, no research licence has been granted and gamekeepers, represented on the group, fear conservationists are running scared of making the tough decisions required to prevent the bird becoming extinct.

“If all the right things are done, there is still a good chance we could save the capercaillie. However, there needs to be some hard decisions taken and some bravery from the government and those advising them when it comes to dealing with the pine marten issue,” said the SGA’s Allan Hodgson.

“Unless advisers make the case that having an infinite number of predators and a finite number of prey in the remaining core area is unsustainable, the capercaillie will be lost.

“When it was suggested deer fences were the problem for capercaillie, they were removed quickly. When it was suggested habitat loss was the problem, lots of public money was ploughed into that. All of these things are important, as is weather, but it has taken those tasked with saving capercaillie far too long to act consistently on predation, despite warnings from practical land managers. It has been danced around for years at meetings because no one has been willing to get their hands dirty; fearful it may make them unpopular with their members.

“There seems to be a realisation, finally, that predation by foxes and crows is a problem but on areas such as the RSPB reserve at Abernethy, where chick productivity has been consistently poor, the control of foxes is inadequate. The habitat there draws in capercaillie from other areas to be eaten. Forestry Commission rangers are now doing a bit more predator control but it is like placing a sticking plaster over a mortal wound.

“What’s needed are new conservation measures, alongside the existing programme of work, and that must include measures to deal with all predators and pine marten in the remaining core capercaillie area.”