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Positive signs for capercaillie conservation

4th July 2023

Support for coordinated action, as lek counts and genetics study results revealed

The results from this spring’s capercaillie lek counts show an increase of 19 male birds – the first increase in eight years. Furthermore, the results of a new study reveal that, although the genetic diversity of the Scottish capercaillie population is low, there is no evidence to suggest that it has declined significantly during the 20th century since the first reintroductions.

These results have emerged as the Cairngorms National Park Authority and NatureScot have been asked to lead a coordinated action plan for the critically endangered capercaillie by Lorna Slater, the Scottish Government’s Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity.

Capercaillie numbers have decreased by over 50% in the last five years with the latest national survey (2021/2022) estimating there are only 542 capercaillie left in Scotland. Those involved in trying to save capercaillie from extinction have welcomed the continued commitment from Scottish Government as well as the news that lek counts in some areas have increased, along with new genetic data from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s (RZSS) WildGenes laboratory.

Lek counts and genetics data will help inform new coordinated action to save the species. The Park Authority and NatureScot are tasked with bringing together stakeholders from across the spectrum to explore a range of options. This will involve developing a spatial plan to coordinate activities from fence marking and removal to working with access takers and expanding pinewood habitat at landscape scale. Scottish Government have also asked the partnership to undertake a survey of pine marten to understand their distribution.

Biodiversity Minister Lorna Slater said: “The capercaillie is on the verge of extinction in Scotland, however new research shows that there is hope for the species. I know how much work has already gone into protecting one of Scotland’s most iconic birds, and we cannot let these efforts be in vain.

“This new approach will see NatureScot and the Cairngorms National Park Authority engage and work with a variety of stakeholders whose valuable experience and insight will be crucial in our efforts to protect the species. This is a key milestone in our efforts to implement the recommendations as set out by NatureScot’s Scientific Advisory Group’s report on capercaillie, which includes the removal of deer fences and improving access to appropriate habitat.

“This is part of our wider mission to address the imminent crisis of nature loss in Scotland.”

Andy Ford, Director of Nature and Climate Change at the Cairngorms National Park Authority said: “We are pleased to see commitment from Scottish Government to save the iconic and threatened capercaillie. It is vital that we focus on the long term, sustainable goal of expanding and restoring high quality pinewood habitat while at the same time, putting in place emergency measures to tackle the very real threats facing the population here and now to ensure the long-term survival.

“The spatial plan will pull together many activities including reducing the risk of fence strikes, diversionary feeding, the possibility of creating refuges as well as continuing to expand the National Park’s forests. Progress has already been made in a number of these areas through the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project and the Cairngorms National Park Partnership Plan but we recognise more needs to be done and quickly. Much of this work will take time but the Park Authority is committed to exploring all options and playing our part in ensuring that capercaillie are here to stay.

“The latest lek data and the valuable work carried out by the RZSS into the genetic health of capercaillie will prove very helpful going forward.”

Commissioned by the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project, the results of the RZSS work has recommended that successfully introducing birds from mainland Europe will increase genetic diversity in the Scottish population, providing more resilience to future challenges.

The samples collected for study show genetic similarity to samples from Scandinavia and central Europe, known as the ‘Northern lineage’ but that Scotland has the lowest genetic diversity within this group. Sites in Strathspey have been identified as being genetic strongholds.

RZSS WildGenes Programme Manager Dr Alex Ball said: “This study brings together the largest amount of capercaillie genetic information to date, highlighting the low levels of genetic diversity in the Scottish population and providing the first fine-scale picture across the landscape. We hope that the new tools developed by this project will aid conservation planning not only in Scotland but throughout Europe. It is important to note that genetics is just one part of the conservation toolbox and it is vital to consider many factors in the planning of any potential reinforcement.”

Scientists say that reinforcing the Scottish capercaillie population with birds from Europe would benefit the species genetic diversity but only if work continues at pace and scale to tackle the other challenges the birds face including habitat availability, predation and human disturbance.

Eileen Stuart, NatureScot’s Deputy Director of Nature and Climate Change said: “While the latest results are heartening, it’s clear that the future of this iconic bird in Scotland is extremely vulnerable. We welcome the Minister’s strong commitment to the action needed to help save this key species. We recognise the urgency of the situation and the need to accelerate efforts on the ground, working with land managers within the current capercaillie range. We will continue to support and invest in large-scale and well-managed restoration and expansion of the pine forest as the key conservation management tool to revive capercaillie populations.

“It’s crucial that any decisions on the management of our protected species are informed by the best science and evidence available and a new survey of pine marten will help us to better understand the size and distribution of the population. With partners we will also continue to explore the potential for diversionary feeding at critical times in the breeding season as the non lethal way of reducing predation on capercaillie eggs and young.”

2023 marks the first year since 2015 that there has been an increase in total lekking males recorded in Scotland – up 19 birds – with the exception of 2021 and 2022 where the total number of males remained the same. This year also saw an increase in leks occupied with six more compared to last year.

A workshop will be taking place in Aviemore on Wednesday 16th August to explore all the conservation options with key stakeholders.

Once found across Scotland, the population range of capercaillie has contracted dramatically with 85% of the remaining population now living in the Cairngorms National Park, with over 80% of those birds to be found in Strathspey