Capercaillie conservation

In the 1970s our forests were home to over 20,000 capercaillie. Since then we've lost the equivalent of one capercaillie every single day.

Capercaillie emergency

The capercaillie population in the UK is in serious decline. Fewer than 1,000 birds may be left.

This makes capercaillie one of the UK's most vulnerable species.

Not only has the population decreased dramatically, their range has also contracted.  Once found across Scotland, it's estimated that around 90% of the UK capercaillie population now lives in the Cairngorms National Park.


Conservation status

The State of Nature Report 2019 provides the best available insight into Scotland’s biodiversity and clearly sets out the grave threats to Scotland’s wildlife.

The report confirms that one in nine species, including capercaillie, are now threatened with extinction.

Consequently one of the highest nature conservation priorities in the UK, capercaillie are also an IUCN Red List species of Conservation Concern and an Annex I species in the EU Birds Directive.


Legal protection

Capercaillie are protected under UK and European law. This means it's an offence to knowingly disturb capercaillie whilst they're;

  • lekking
  • nest building
  • at or near a nest with eggs or young

It's also an offence to;

  • disturb the dependent young of a capercaillie
  • obstruct or prevent a capercaillie from using its nest
  • damage, destroy or interfere with a capercaillie nest while it's in use or being built
  • kill, injure or take a capercaillie
  • take or destroy the eggs of a capercaillie

For information on how to avoid disturbing capercaillie, download the Guidance for Responsible Capercaillie Watching


Causes of decline

Capercaillie numbers have fallen for lots of reasons including lack of habitat, low productivity, predation, collisions with unmarked deer fences, and human disturbance.

Capercaillie are a specialist species, only able to survive in a narrow range of conditions, and sensitive to external factors including human disturbance. They require extensive areas of Scots Pine dominated woodland, which is only available in Scotland, and a varied forest structure including open areas to feed and dense areas for cover.

These specific habitat needs make capercaillie particularly vulnerable to habitat fragmentation and unfavourable forest management. Limited and fragmented habitat is a recognised cause of population decline, and can lead capercaillie populations to become isolated. This can compromise their genetic health and increases the likelihood of inbreeding. Less habitat means capercaillie may also be more prone to the impacts of predation and human disturbance


Conservation past and present

In the early 1990s, the best conservation science suggested that capercaillie would be extinct in Scotland by around 2010.  The fact that we still have them is testament to the efficacy of capercaillie conservation work over the last 30 years.

European LIFE and Scottish Forestry funding significantly improved conditions for capercaillie in the 1990s to the early 2000s. It's generally accepted that without this work capercaillie may well have gone extinct in the UK.

More recently the Capercaillie Framework, produced by a number of organisations, set out a series of recommendations to help secure the long-term future of our capercaillie.  The Cairngorms Capercaillie Project has adopted a number of these recommendations.

Across the Cairngorms National Park, the project, estates and reserves all continue to work hard for capercaillie as the species remains in a parlous state and still needs our help.  This ongoing need is not unusual when dealing with a highly vulnerable species.