Extra care needed to allow capercaillie to thrive in the Cairngorms this spring


Being outdoors in spring is an uplifting experience after a long Scottish Highland winter – especially in the Cairngorms National Park, a place both residents and visitors alike share with some of the country’s most impressive but also most endangered wildlife.

To help the Park’s rarest animals survive at a time when they are at their most vulnerable, dog walkers are being encouraged to keep their pets under control and walkers to be extra mindful of where they tread during spring and summer.

“This past year, so many of us have been rediscovering the benefits of fresh air, great views and sightings of wildlife we might not previously have seen”, says Carolyn Robertson, Project Manager on the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project. “As locals we’ve been taking advantage of the amazing trails on our doorstep, and we’re looking forward to visitors returning to enjoy the National Park once restrictions ease. But this time of year is especially critical for the survival of ground nesting birds like capercaillie and we all have a part to play in keeping them safe.”

There are a number of ground nesting bird species in the Cairngorms but by far the largest is the turkey-sized capercaillie – its name originating from capall-coille, Gaelic for ‘horse of the forest’.

“Over 80% of Scotland’s small remaining capercaillie population now live in the pinewoods of the Cairngorms National Park,” continues Carolyn, “and we’re so lucky to have them – but it also means we need to take extra care if we’re out in the woods not to disturb this striking bird, especially in spring when they are breeding.”

Each spring, capercaillie gather in specific areas of pinewood to mate. Males will perform an extraordinary courtship display called a lek (old Norse for ‘dance’), strutting about with their heads high and tails fanned, making strangely un-bird-like wheezing and popping and clattering noises. If undisturbed, a lek site will host generations of these displays. But if it is disturbed – for instance by humans or dogs who have ranged off-path – the birds might not breed at all that year. And given their low population numbers, this has a potentially huge impact.

Capercaillie favour very specific forest conditions due to their diet and nesting needs, which leaves them only a few options for new lek sites if they abandon their usual spot.

“When capercaillie chicks are really young they can’t survive without their mothers and they may not regroup as a family after being scattered”, says Carolyn, “But there are steps we can all take to ensure that we don’t flush and scare them, which will hopefully help the next generation of birds survive the season.”

Capercaillie are a protected species by law, so it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb them while they’re lekking, nesting or rearing young. 

Steps taken to help protect capercaillie can also help other ground nesting birds like curlew, dotterel or oystercatchers – so the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) and the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project have offered some key advice to ensure the birds survive and thrive during this important time of year:

“Going for a walk with the dog keeps us moving and our canine friends happy – but although a dog might be well behaved and friendly, a capercaillie sees them as a threat and a predator,” says Adam Streeter-Smith, CNPA Access Officer. “In pine woodlands, between April and mid August, please keep your dog on a lead when requested by signage. It’s extremely important that we follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code so we know we’re always helping to protect the environment and wildlife we love.”

“The Cairngorms National Park boasts a wealth of beautiful trails, and one way we can help capercaillie is by sticking to paths when in forest areas”, says Duncan Macdonald, Community Ranger on the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project. “If we stray off into deep pinewood, it’s possible we will have unknowingly crossed a capercaillie lek site or a nesting area. It’s not worth the risk.” You can discover trails and paths in the Cairngorms on the CNP website.

“Trust us, we’d love to spot a capercaillie on our daily walks”, concludes Duncan. “And if we all leave them in peace and give them space to flourish, one day that might just become a reality.”



Interviews available. Please contact jocastamann@cairngorms.co.uk

Cairngorms Capercaillie Project


The Cairngorms Capercaillie Project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and led by the Cairngorms National Park Authority, is the coming together of a wider range of people in the Cairngorms National Park to help secure the long-term survival of capercaillie in the UK. It’s possible that there are now less than 1,000 capercaillie left in the UK and almost all of them live in the Cairngorms National Park. Action in the National Park is therefore critical to prevent extinction in the UK.

National Lottery Heritage Fund


Using money raised by the National Lottery, the National Lottery Heritage Fund inspires, leads and resources the UK’s heritage to create positive and lasting change for people and communities, now and in the future.

Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA)


The Cairngorms National Park was established in 2003. It is the UK’s largest national park at 4,528 sq km. The CNPA was set up to ensure that the unique aspects of the Cairngorms – both the natural environment and the local communities – are cared for, sustained and enhanced for current and future generations to enjoy. The CNPA provides leadership to all those involved in the Cairngorms and works in partnership with a range of communities, businesses, non-government organisations and public sector partners to deliver practical solutions on the ground.

Posted in:

You might also be interested in...