Capercaillie Lek Count Report 2024

Background

Lek counts are a tool used to monitor capercaillie numbers in Scotland and have been carried out consistently across the capercaillie range since 2002, except in 2020 due to Covid restrictions.

The counts involve licensed surveyors counting the number of males that attend known lek sites. This is coordinated by the RSPB’s Capercaillie Advisory Officer and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund through the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project, NatureScot and the RSPB.

As capercaillie are a legally protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), lek surveys are completed under a Schedule 1 licence from NatureScot. Surveyors are fully trained and follow a strict protocol to gather accurate data and reduce the risk of disturbance.

Lek locations can move, so capercaillie forests are often ‘cold-searched’ before lek surveys. This involves surveyors checking potential lek sites for signs of capercaillie during a daytime walk-through to identify hotspots of activity. This survey work is followed up by early morning lek counts which start at dawn and take place during April and early May. The counts primarily involve surveyors counting male birds seen from hides, which surveyors enter the night before and sleep in to reduce disturbance. 

The results from the lek counts provide an insight into population trends and inform local management for capercaillie. The counts are not intended to provide an overall population estimate for capercaillie as it is only a partial dataset. For example, female capercaillie can be missed as they do not attend leks every morning and young males do not attend leks until they are ready to breed.

The national survey, which has been repeated every 6 years since the early 1990s involves surveyors walking multiple transects across the capercaillie range during the winter. As the whole capercaillie range is surveyed through this process, the results can be used to inform population estimates. 

The latest national survey in 2021 – 2022 estimated that there are now only 532 capercaillie in Scotland. This is the lowest recorded level since the start of the national survey in 1992 – 1994. The full results from the 2021 – 2022 survey are available here: Further declines of the Western Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus in Scotland as shown by the 2021–2022 winter survey

Key results from the 2024 lek counts

There was a decrease of 15 lekking males in 2024 compared to 2023, with a total of 153 lekking males counted. This was due to an absence of recorded lekking males in Perthshire and Moray / Nairnshire and a decline in lekking males in Strathspey and Easter Ross. In Deeside however, recorded lekking males doubled from 5 to 10.

The survey effort remained consistent, however new survey methods were employed including the use of CCTV cameras, audio recorders and a thermal imaging drone used under licence in Perthshire. The survey method in Morangie also changed from an early morning walk-through to the use of hides due to concerns over disturbance.

Compared to previous years, birds were observed lekking for an additional 3 hours until 10am at a lek site where targeted work is underway to reduce disturbance by dogs and significant progress has been made to reduce disturbance by birdwatchers, photographers and guided groups as part of the Lek It Be campaign

Storm damage (windblow) in Inshriach in Badenoch and Strathspey, restricted access and visibility to some lek sites which are usually counted from a vehicle early in the morning. This may explain why the results from these counts are lower this year.

The weather was challenging with snow preventing some cold searching and intermittent rain reducing the number of mornings available to survey.

Conclusions

The decrease in lekking males recorded is disappointing, however, in forests where targeted management for capercaillie has been undertaken, the number of lekking males recorded was either more this year or the same as last year.

The peripheral populations remain in an increasingly perilous position, with no lekking males recorded in Moray / Nairnshire or in Perthshire, and a reduction in the number of lekking males in Ross-shire.  Surveying these areas is difficult and requires more survey effort prior to the lek counts because the single males present are more mobile in their search for female (hen) capercaillie. The loss of capercaillie in these areas would result in a further contraction of the capercaillie range and further increase the vulnerability of the species. Strathspey remains the stronghold for capercaillie in Scotland.



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