Capercaillie

A bird of the Old World, capercaillie have been living in our pine forests since the last Ice Age. The largest grouse in the world, powered by pine needles and known in Gaelic as the Horse of the Woods; capercaillie are iconic.

In the UK capercaillie are only found in Scotland. They are part of a global population extending from Russia to Scandinavia and across Europe from the Black Forest to the Pyrenees.

Capable of reaching a grand old age of six, male capercaillie can hold huge territories in the forest. Each spring they attend lek sites which have been used by capercaillie for generations. There they perform a display of whistles and flutter jumps to attract the attention of females. 

If successful at the lek, females will lay around eight eggs in May in a nest on the forest floor and visit forest bogs to feed on protein-rich cotton grass to stay strong and healthy whilst breeding.

Chicks will hatch from late May and feed on insects. If we experience a wet spring insects can be in short supply. This can lead chicks to starve. Others may die of cold or be eaten by predators. Typically, only one chick per brood will make it to adulthood.

Making it off the forest floor and into the branches is a big step towards relative safety for chicks, who are able to fly within two to three weeks of hatching.

By September, they are independent of their mother and in order not to compete for food and avoid inbreeding, they will disperse from where they were born. Females will often travel further than males; if habitat is available they'll make a new start up to 30km away.

Capercaillie nest
Capercaillie nest
Capercaillie chick
Capercaillie chick

A capercaillie emergency

There are only 532 capercaillie left in the UK. That is half the number of birds we had five years ago and the lowest recorded level in the last 30 years.

Now one of our most vulnerable birds, the Cairngorms National Park is the last remaining stronghold for capercaillie in the UK, with very few birds remaining elsewhere.

 

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Conservation status

The State of Nature Report 2023 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 in Scotland, including capercaillie, are now threatened with extinction.

The current predicted rate of population decline means that with no extra action, the Scottish capercaillie population is likely to be extinct within 20 – 30 years.

 

Legal protection

Capercaillie are protected under UK law. This means that it is an offence to knowingly disturb capercaillie whilst they are:

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

It is 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

 

Male and female capercaillie
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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 fences and disturbance.

Capercaillie are a specialist species, only able to survive in a narrow range of conditions. 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. Limited and fragmented habitat is a recognised cause of population decline and can lead capercaillie populations to become isolated. This can increase the likelihood of inbreeding and leave the birds 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 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 is 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 capercaillie in the UK. The Cairngorms Capercaillie Project adopted a number of these recommendations.

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

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New genetic research

Genetic diversity is key to a species’ ability to adapt and survive and maintaining and restoring it is especially important in populations that have undergone dramatic declines, like capercaillie. The Cairngorms Capercaillie Project has been working with the RZSS WildGenes laboratory at Edinburgh Zoo to help reveal the genetic diversity of the capercaillie left in Scotland. The study saw the project collect over 1,000 capercaillie feathers from across the National Park. DNA was extracted from the feathers and analysed. To read the findings from the study, click on the link below to the final report.

Analysing the genetic diversity of the capercaillie population in the Cairngorms National Park – Final report (pdf)