Monitoring fences for capercaillie: A volunteer’s story

Earlier this year we were joined by four new Fence Monitoring Volunteers who have now walked over 90kms of fencing that could pose a risk to capercaillie to check and record the status of the fencing. Their work is essential to help busy land managers and capercaillie by maintaining an up-to-date digital record of the status of all fencing in capercaillie areas across the Cairngorms National Park. You can see the digital record here.

We hear from one of the volunteers, Colin, about his experience so far …

Words by Colin Maclennan

I’m sitting on the Braes of Abernethy with a flask of tea in the warm sunshine. The views north and east stretch out forever, the Dorback Burn is meandering through its weird sand dunes below me, and a crested tit is eying me quizzically from its perch on the fence; just some of the delights of volunteering with the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project, and this is my first outing.

The Braes of Abernethy. Photo – Colin Maclennan

Things aren’t good for capercaillie these days – numbers are falling, the birds and their habitats are under multiple pressures, and every action to help seems surrounded in controversy and counter opinions, so as volunteers we just trust the experts and do our best to help. An undoubted long-term threat to the birds is collision with unmarked deer fences; we’ve already found one such fatality this year, and so central to our role is to get out and eyeball fences throughout the Cairngorms National Park with the landowner’s permission so that remedial actions can be taken like fence marking being repaired for example, or fences removed altogether if redundant. This is just one of many measures being taken to help this vulnerable species, and all are crucial to ensuring the capercaillie’s long term survival.

Colin taking a break on a day surveying near Abernethy

Along with three other committed volunteers, fuelled by cake and enthusiasm, the core of our role is to physically walk the fences and record what we find using a dedicated app which works really well and makes the process really simple. Accordingly we also get issued with a clever little gadget which tracks where we are, and alerts someone if we are overdue or apparently in difficulty. It has an annoying habit of going off and talking to you if you bump it accidentally, but I guess it keeps us safe.

I get to know so much more about one of my favourite parts of Scotland, as well as hopefully helping to protect its wildlife.

Looking out over Rothiemurchus. Photo – Colin Maclennan

Fences have been installed over the years to protect regenerating woodland from deer browsing and there are a lot of them in the National Park, but collectively we’re reaching our first 100km of surveys, and continue to make steady progress. The National Park is unsurprisingly home to a wealth of wildlife and habitats, so we try to gather other useful information while we’re out. For example, the location and condition of aspen trees if we find them, and I’m on alert for rarities that might be of interest to groups such as Butterfly Conservation, Plantlife or others involved in the National Park.

The river Luineag. Photo – Colin Maclennan

It’s always rewarding to volunteer with a clear purpose, but at the same time it’s a great excuse just to get out and explore these lonely, lovely places. I’d never have visited here otherwise, there’s no paths or signs – just the opportunity to get close to nature, both physically and in understanding. I enjoy all of this, I get to know so much more about one of my favourite parts of Scotland, as well as hopefully helping to protect its wildlife. I’m constantly gaining new friends among the fantastic team of National Park staff and volunteers, as well as many others in local communities and related organisations who all recognise the pressures on our wildlife and environment and are working hard to make a difference.

Wish us luck!

Capercaillie cock sitting on a marked deer fence. Photo: Seafield & Strathspey Estates

If this has inspired you to volunteer for nature or habitat conservation, including for capercaillie, check out the experiences offered on the Cairngorms National Park Volunteers page. You can also drop an email / tweet @CNPvolunteer.

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