Ground-breaking genetic research to help save capercaillie in the UK

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s (RZSS) WildGenes experts are working with the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project on ground-breaking scientific research to help secure a long-term future for the UK population of the world’s largest grouse species.

Based at Edinburgh Zoo, the wildlife charity’s conservation genetics laboratory has been commissioned to analyse capercaillie DNA samples, to inform critical conservation action for the species as part of a project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Over the last 50 years, UK capercaillie numbers have fallen by over 90% due to a range of issues including human disturbance, habitat loss, predation and climate change, with the majority of remaining birds now only found in the Cairngorms National Park and at risk of a genetic bottleneck.

Dr Alexander Ball, RZSS WildGenes Programme Manager, said, “Understanding the genetic diversity of the UK’s capercaillie population is critical for its long-term survival and resilience to threats. Our research will determine whether the conservation focus for the species needs to be on expanding the gene pool rather than simply increasing numbers. We will be using a novel technique that will maximise our ability to work with the degraded DNA fragments found in feathers collected from the capercaillie’s current range in the Cairngorms National Park.”

Carolyn Robertson, Project Manager for the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project, said, “We’re incredibly excited to be working with the RZSS WildGenes laboratory. This method of analysis has never been used in capercaillie conservation before. It will significantly help the management of these birds in the UK, and it could also pave the way for future conservation projects across Eurasia. Collecting the DNA samples for this analysis was a large-scale operation in itself, with a small army of people responding to our project’s call for help. Foresters, rangers, stalkers, gamekeepers, ecologists and trained volunteers responded, carefully gathering over 1,000 feathers to be sent to the lab.”

Capercaillie feathers collected by the local community, collated by the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project, and sent to RZSS WildGenes for the DNA to be processed.

In the UK capercaillie are only found in Scotland, separated from a global population extending from Russia to Scandinavia and found within remaining mountainous forests across Europe, from the Carpathians to the Pyrenees – however, similarly to the UK population, there are continuing declines.

As part of the project’s work, capercaillie DNA samples have also been obtained from Sweden, Poland, Germany, Austria, Norway and the French Pyrenees to give insight into genetic differences between capercaillie in the UK and other populations. These samples will also enable the researchers to develop genetic tools that are applicable to multiple European populations.

“There is great potential to replicate the toolkit developed during this project and use it to study other capercaillie populations across the global range,” continues Dr Ball. “We can already see genetic information having a positive impact on capercaillie conservation across mainland Europe, so we’re looking forward to seeing what our work with the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project can achieve.”

Male and female capercaillie

As part of the genetic research, work is also underway to source DNA samples from old Scottish capercaillie specimens to compare with the present-day population. These samples are usually taken from the toe pads of historic specimens now preserved for display. The project has been in contact with private collection owners across Scotland, but invites anyone who might own a capercaillie specimen to contribute to the research, by contacting


Editors’ Notes


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More detail on the genetics work can be found here: 

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.

Royal Zoological Society of Scotland

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) has protected threatened species in Scotland and around the world for over 100 years. As a leading conservation charity, it connects people to nature and safeguards wildlife across the globe.

At Edinburgh Zoo and Highland Wildlife Park, diverse and dedicated RZSS teams care for almost 3,000 amazing animals and carry out cutting-edge science and research. The wild experts based in RZSS zoos support an incredible range of projects and direct conservation action, from the highlands of Scotland to the wetlands of Brazil and rainforests of Uganda.  As our natural environment faces a biodiversity crisis, at RZSS we are inspiring and empowering communities to help save animals from extinction. Visit to find out more.

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