How does forest management help rare wildlife like capercaillie?

There is now very little remaining of Scotland’s great native pinewoods, which would once have supported an abundance of wildlife like capercaillie. As they are now, these native pinewoods can not sustain a population of capercaillie by themselves. Plantation Scots pine forests are much more plentiful though, and fortunately, capercaillie can also thrive in these types of woods – as long as they are managed in a way that caters to the birds’ needs (of which there are a number)!

A very important part of what we do in the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project involves not only creating but managing habitat for capercaillie. To achieve this we call upon the expertise of our project partners, including those who manage the forests that are home to the elusive birds.

Recently we went to one of these forests to catch up with some of the team at Seafield & Strathspey Estates, one of our project partners, who have been optimising the habitat there for capercaillie as part of the project. Will Anderson, Chief Executive of Seafield & Strathspey Estates, is a chartered forester himself with over 30 years experience in forestry and land management. Familiar with the lifecycle of forestry operations, he had plenty of insight to offer. The harvester operator, Mike Scott, was able to take a break from his machine to join us, while we stood among the neat piles of timber.

Collecting timber from a newly thinned woodland

What is it you’re doing up here at the moment?

Will: “This is called thinning. It involves carefully selecting and removing a relatively small number of trees within quite a densely-planted woodland like this one, where you can see it can look quite dark under the canopy. The main advantage to thinning is that it exposes the forest floor to sunlight and moisture which helps all sorts of plants thrive, like blaeberry, which is a brilliant food source for capercaillie and other animals.”

So what goes into these operations in a forest where capercaillie are present? 

Will: “Depending on location, this kind of work takes place over about 3-4 months starting in the late summer, and only happens roughly every 10 years in each area as Scots pine take a long time to grow, and there’s a huge deal of planning involved, so we start planning and consulting as early as January of the year the work is to take place. A number of organisations are involved in making decisions about this, and they cover everything from nature and wildlife conservation, to planning, licensing, land management, onsite operations and timber processing. There are also mandatory regulations that we must comply with, as well as guidance for good practice, and in our minds we go a step beyond that because we (and the timber harvesting company) are also certified externally to the  UKWAS which is a standard for responsible forest management that interprets the requirements of the two leading global forest certification schemes – the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) – for UK conditions.

You’ll also see that in each area we thin the machines only work in about 3 or 4 square hectares at a time. Not only is that area initially selected to cause as little disturbance as possible, but it’s a very small area in context with the wider forest, so that also gives the wildlife a chance to retreat safely nearby while it’s going on.”

How might these operations help wildlife like capercaillie?

Will: “Capercaillie thrive in a habitat that’s varied in structure, for example a mix of mature and young trees, with blaeberry cover and boggy areas that contain plants for them to feed on. With these newer plantations, all the pines are around the same age, so it’s not quite as optimal for the animals as it could be – there are many species that like to use trees in different stages of growth. So by felling a small number of trees, you give the forest floor a chance to thrive, and new trees can grow while the existing ones age, eventually giving a nice variety of trees for capercaillie to use in different ways. Eventually, the birds will expand into this habitat and hopefully thrive here.

Newly-thinned woodland

We do not expect any significant disturbance to capercaillie during the works because there are so many controls in place to prevent this – we follow the recognised and well-developed guidance which minimises disturbance. Capercaillie might note the presence of the machinery and retreat during the start of the operations, but because work always happens within a consistent daily timeframe and moves over the site very slowly, they and other wildlife quickly get used to this presence. Sometimes we’ve even seen deer wandering around the machines for a better look..!

As well as the ecological benefits to capercaillie, are there other benefits?

Will: “Well thinning for instance serves multiple purposes. We can retain some trees for wildlife habitat, and everyone can benefit from forests full of wildlife. But we can also use the felled trees for timber which is contributes to the local economy – something that’s also helped by the jobs we’re able to create through these operations. This thinning work alone involves a huge range of skills and professions.”

Mike: “We’ve all been in forestry for some decades now and we know the area very well having thinned it, in some cases, three times now. I think that helps it along, in terms of efficiency and a sense of ownership and pride in the work.”

Will: “We have a long standing relationship with our contractors and staff, so we all share a great level of trust and understanding of each others’ roles and experiences – that helps enormously.”

What’s an average day like on this job? Any challenges?

Mike: “For a harvester operator these are quite early starts and long days, and the weather is really changeable, which impacts how I equip my machine to deal with those conditions. There’s a lot of planning involved. I’d say that one of the biggest challenges is actually being confident that people passing through the area are following the safety signage… When I’m working, I rely on pre-warning that someone’s approaching, so that I can see clearly what’s around me and make sure the machine is off while they pass. Otherwise debris from the harvester can fly around and it could hurt someone.”

Mike Scott, harvester operator

Will: “If this was, say, a building site then obviously there would be barriers around the site excluding the public from entering. But that’s neither reasonably practicable, nor would it align with Scotland’s outdoor access code. What is practicable is to put up signs and give information, so we do that as part of our safety and risk assessment, for everyone’s benefit. There’s still a chance the site could be entered by walkers, cyclists or those on horseback, so all we would stress is that if you come across these signs, it’s so important to adhere to them. Even if it involves re-planning your route during the work timeline (usually only 3 months) to avoid it – although it’s at times inconvenient, it’s safer for both you and the operators.

In that sense, the unpredictable nature of recreational activity isn’t just tricky for us to navigate, it goes for the wildlife too. Capercaillie in particular are really unsettled by surprise encounters. They sometimes move closer to tracks to drink from puddles or ingest grit for their digestion, so if they have an unexpected encounter with walkers or an excited dog off the lead for example, they can become stressed and possibly never return to (or breed in) that location again, and their young could be abandoned.”

Clear-felled site at Inverlaidnan, Cairngorms National Park

During our visit, Will went on to show us a site that had recently been clear-felled. The result was an expanse of what appeared to be a large treeless area, dotted with deadwood and stumps. But, upon a closer look, there were signs of life where tiny pines, birches and heather had begun to grow.

What’s happening in this area? It looks like a whole forest has disappeared!

Will: “This was an area that was wind-blown and many of the trees were damaged or were dying. There were also non-native trees here like Lodgepole pine, which we’ve cleared to make way for a healthy mix of native species like Scots pine, birch and other broadleaves, a mix which I personally favour not only for the aesthetic appeal but for their ability to support various wildlife and produce better timber. We won’t see all the benefits immediately and this can look quite stark to begin with, but over time the ground flora will develop, bogs will reform and this woodland will be a mix of planted and naturally regenerated trees. A really great example of where that’s already happening is at Kinveachy.”

Regenerating woodland at Kinveachy, Seafield & Strathspey Estates

Lastly, any fun facts?

Will: “We often look at any deadwood and debris in the forest as ‘untidy’ – actually for animals and fungi this is a paradise, so we leave behind some of the deadwood during thinning. Piles of branches help capercaillie to hide from predators. Tree stumps and deadwood can become home to other rare species like pine hoverfly, and supports fungi (which aids new tree establishment). So when we see what looks like a mess it’s actually helping support a whole ecosystem. Nature clearly isn’t meant to be tidy!”

Mike: “During harvesting we put tops of trees and branches that are not removed for timber under the machines and they get used as a sort of carpet, which minimises the impact on the soils. Then when we’re done, the deadwood left behind still benefits insects and fungi. Give it several months after the thinning work and you’d barely notice we’d been in there.”

Will: “Yes, and any tracks left by machines are still useful as they provide a place for capercaillie to come and dust-bathe (which helps get rid of ticks). They also create a break in the taller vegetation which is good for young birds needing to dry off.

Managing our forests for capercaillie is obviously crucial to ensure they remain with us. But they’re often called an ‘umbrella species’ for a reason – it’s because whatever we do to help capercaillie also benefits a wide range of other wildlife, from red squirrel to other ground nesting birds and even insects and amphibians. So there are plenty of reasons to work hard for capercaillie.”

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