The RSPB's predation problem
Image: Ron Knight
The capercaillie is an interesting bird. The largest member of the grouse family, it is prevalent across much of Northern Europe; in fact in countries such as Austria, Sweden and Russia it is still shot. In Scotland however (the only part of the UK in which they still live), numbers have dwindled to as low as 1,000 birds, from a population of around 20,000 in the 1970s. This isn't a recent drop; in 2001 there were only around 1,000 birds, leading the Scottish Executive to make the shooting of them illegal (although there had already been a voluntary moratorium on shooting from the 1980s). Since then, numbers crept up to around 2,000 a few years later, but have since dropped back down to just over 1,000. It isn't a case of persecution by shooters, as is so often claimed with many other species! The downfall of the capercaillie in Scotland has been due to disturbance by people (even a person walking their dog will upset them), collision with deer fencing (due to their size, they need more take-off space than smaller species, and therefore often collide with fencing), and habitat loss.
If the capercaillie does become extinct, it will in fact be the second time the bird has become extinct in Scotland. In the 1700s they were hunted to extinction, before being reintroduced from European populations in the 1800s. So much for 'rewilding' being a new phenomenon, then!
But sadly, their plight doesn't look promising. Despite vast amounts of funding, the capercaillie isn't doing any better. Recent funding efforts have included a £2m donation from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to improve capercaillie habitat in pinewoods, raise awareness about how to avoid disturbing the birds and making deer fences more visible. More recently, RSPB Scotland have introduced a herd of cattle and a 'robocutting' machine, to control the heather, and encourage blaeberries – the capercaillies' favourite foodstuff, with money from the EU LIFE programme, RSPB Scotland and with support from NatureScot (formerly Scottish Natural Heritage).
But wait a minute! Is all that money – and it is a lot of money – best spent on controlling heather (which, incidentally, is done both more cheaply and efficiently using traditional moorland management – including cutting)? Or is something else, other than lack of habitat or suitable food, preventing capercaillie from thriving? Something the RSPB rarely mention in their press releases is the effect of predation on capercaillie breeding. Some people believe that this is because the RSPB worry that they will damage their 'caring' image if they admit to killing predators – even though we know that they cull thousands of animals every year.
Or perhaps it's because gamekeepers and others who monitor capercaillie in their only remaining strongholds (if they can be called that) is that the presence of pine marten has a huge impact on capercaillie breeding numbers. The problem is that the creatures, who are closely related to weasels are ferrets, like the capercaillie enjoy living in woodland habitats and, like the capercaillie, are protected in the UK as an endangered species.
As Patrick Sleigh, Chairman of NFUS, North East Environment and Land wrote in the Press and Journal earlier this year, the groups such as RSPB and Cairngorm National Park "have been too focused on raptors, predator protection and rewilding, rather than the conservation of endangered species and the obvious cause of their decline... the pine marten is killing off the capercaillie, many other species are being killed off by badgers, buzzards, ravens and so on, which all have protected status." So what is the solution? Surely it's not to continue pouring money into "improving habitat"and "raising awareness" when the answer is that without predator control, the capercaillie has no hope? Every time plans to trial a relocation of the martens is posited, the plans are shot down.
When the capercaillie was first reintroduced in the 1800s, it survived because predators were controlled, allowing it to breed and reach the numbers seen in the 1970s. If we want to see these birds flourish, they need our help. And that's the decision that needs making. Cull or control predators – which may include relocating the pine marten – or see these vulnerable species disappear? There is no easy answer. But the sad truth is that they cannot both flourish side by side.