A view on capercaillie management in Scotland

A new report, commissioned by NatureScot, has reviewed capercaillie conservation and management in Scotland and has proposed a number of immediate actions. Here is SBP's response.

Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) adult male displaying in pine wodland, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland, UK

As a species that found a home in our boreal pinewoods at the end of the last ice age, capercaillie have been part of Scotland’s landscape for thousands of years. Extinct once before in the 18th century, we now once again face the threat of losing the world’s largest grouse.

Nobody knows for sure why capercaillie are struggling in Scotland but a combination of fragmented woodland habitat, climate change, disturbance, fence collisions, inbreeding and predation have all been identified as possible individual, or collective, causes. It is the issue of predation that divides opinion more than any other.

As a ground-nesting species, capercaillie are susceptible to a wide range of predators, including but not limited to, foxes, pine martens, badgers, crows, goshawks, golden eagles and smaller opportunist carnivores, such as stoats and weasels. A proposed reintroduction of wildcats in 2023 into the western Cairngorms, will add a further species to this list of potential predators. 

SCOTLAND: The Big Picture (SBP) acknowledges that capercaillie conservation is complex and that decision-making around their management is impacted by factors that often have little to do with the species itself, not least of which, the significant investment already made in attempting to recover their populations, estimated at £10m. 

A new report, commissioned by NatureScot and delivered by its Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC), has reviewed capercaillie conservation and management in Scotland, and in recognition of a marked reduction in the range and population since the 1970’s, has proposed a number of immediate actions. The report acknowledges that none of the proposed actions carry guaranteed success, and that the evidence supporting them, varies significantly. Drawing on historical research, the SAC report recommends ramping up management methods that to varying degrees, have been in place for some time, and which to date have had little effect on reversing the prolonged decline of capercaillie across Scotland. This includes either renewed, or ongoing, predator control.

While there is evidence for the efficacy of targeted, short-term predator control, routine single-species management – sometimes referred to as pick and mix conservation – is an approach that has dominated for decades, but with notable exceptions, has failed to arrest and reverse ecological decline across the UK, and challenges the core principles of rewilding.  

As a charity focused on nature recovery at a landscape scale, SBP does not support the principle of killing and/or removal of a single species in favour of another, unless such action is underpinned by sound ecological science. Instead, SBP advocates for the re-establishment of fully functioning ecosystems, governed by dynamic natural processes, including predator-prey interactions. SBP also recognises the role of all species – including missing native species - in sustaining functioning food webs and other ecological interactions. Against these foundational principles, SBP would always support the path of least management with lethal control only being used once other approaches have been exhausted, and based on the best available science. 

Rather than routinely defaulting to actions that diminish species abundance, SBP would encourage pro-active interventions that catalyse self-regulating ecosystems. An example of this would be considering the role of apex predators, which are known to have a significant influence on the population dynamics and behaviour of mid-sized predators, such as foxes and pine martens. This would signal fresh thinking founded on ecological principles, rather than cultural or political motivations.

SBP recognises that capercaillie are persisting on the edge of their breeding range, in a sub-optimal physical environment and that without intervention, there is a strong possibility of their extinction in Scotland. Any short-term measures taken to avoid this becoming reality, should not negate the urgent need for self-sustaining, resilient landscapes hosting a broader range of native species that render management measures such as predator control, redundant.



Tuesday, April 26, 2022
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