What’s killing off the capercaillie?

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by Ben O’Rourke

In the 1970s, there were more than 20,000 capercaillie in the UK.

“Now there might only be 1,000,” says Ian Coghill, chairman of the Coordinated Upland Partnership. The RSPB goes even further. In 2022, it released figures claiming there were only 542 capercaillie left. The responsibility for that lies at the door of the RSPB, which claims it is the bird’s gamekeeper and has accepted millions of pounds in public and National Lottery money via the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project to conserve the bird and has failed.

Paradoxically, Scotland’s real gamekeepers cast doubt on the RSPB’s capercaillie count. The Scottish Gamekeepers Association’s Helen Ferguson says RSPB scientists carried out their count incorrectly, and are taking no account of local reports of the bird. 

Ian Coghill says: “There are several theories why they’re not doing very well but nobody knows but there does seem to be an element in it. Certainly the weather: we’ve had a run of wet Junes in which the chicks don’t do well. Forests have changed. There are also more predators of different kinds, more birds of prey.

“Predation is made more problematic by the fact that quite a bit of it is being done by pine marten. You’ve got this odd thing: you have a rare mammal, pine marten, which is getting more common and spreading further, that’s eating a rare bird that is getting scarcer… at great risk of becoming extinct.”

Alarm bells first rang in the early 1990s when capercaillie numbers dropped to about 2,200 – a 90% drop – prompting a call to action, including expanding habitats, taking down deer fences and increasing predator control.

Throughout most of the past three decades, the RSPB has been in charge of the population at the Abernethy nature reserve in Scotland’s Cairngorms.

Since then, the numbers have been relatively stable, except for a drop to about 1,000 in 1999. That came after RSPB decided to stop predator control for a few years to see what would happen.

The taxpayer has poured millions of pounds into grants for the RSPB’s efforts to keep the birds from extinction. With the falling population, the charity is once again accused of failing to live up to its name and of wasting public money.

“Money is not what is needed,” says Ian. “What’s needed is a thorough understanding of what’s going on.”

On a trip to Abernethy in early January 2020, I heard a couple of tweeting birds but the only animals I saw were two dogs being taken for walks through the nature reserve. Ian says that the dogwalkers could be a factor as to why the RSPB failed in its mission to boost capercaillie numbers to 5,000 by 2010.

“Neither pine martens nor capercaillie like dogs, so it may well be that from their point of view, the forest doesn’t look the same as it looks to us. Instead of being a continuous series of trees, what it looks like is a continuous network of dogs. So those species are pushed into enclaves away from where they get disturbed by the dogs and the dogwalkers. It’s very likely that one of the great unspoken conservation problems is disturbance by human beings, dogs, mountain bikers, microlights and all the other stuff. As people more and more march around with their dogs, as they are entitled to do in Scotland [under Right To Roam legislation], it may well have an adverse effect, by pushing the predator and its prey together in these enclaves.”

There are movements across Scotland and the rest of the UK calling for bans on grouse shooting and the RSPB is one of the loudest voices. In 2020, RSPB’s head of species and land management Duncan Orr-Ewing complained that grousemoors are ‘industrial landscapes’ in a speech at Abernethy. The charity and prominent wildlife activists such as Chris Packham have been selling an idea to their supporters that grousemoors could somehow be turned into money-making ‘eco-friendly’ attractions for birdwatchers and ramblers. The Abernethy reserve makes money by charging people to see rare birds and selling stuffed osprey toys.

“How crazy have you got to be to have a senior man in the RSPB standing in the middle of Abernethy saying that grouse moors are industrial landscapes,” says Ian. “If your model of management is Abernethy, what income do you get as a landowner? Absolutely none. The idea that ecotourism is going to help landowners is tosh. The one thing you saw those people walking those dogs would not do is pay. They will do that for free. The one thing a birdwatcher will not do is pay.”

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