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.

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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.

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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

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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 environmental 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.

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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 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, estates and reserves continue to work hard for capercaillie as the species remains in a precarious position and still needs our help. This ongoing need is not unusual when dealing with a highly vulnerable species.

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New genetic research

Capercaillie numbers in the UK are now so low that the population could be experiencing a genetic bottleneck, limiting the genetic diversity of the species. In the face of climate change this could affect the birds’ ability to adapt and survive.

To investigate this issue over 1,200 capercaillie feathers have been collected through the project, by landmanagers and local residents. Using the DNA extracted from the feathers we can now assess whether the UK capercaillie population is on the brink of (or already experiencing) a harmful genetic bottleneck.

With this information we can develop an action plan in response. This may involve exploring the idea of introducing birds from abroad to help expand the gene pool.

To read the full research report about the feathers that were collected, how the DNA was extracted and what we learnt click here.