National survey results reveal UK capercaillie numbers are critically low

The latest national survey, carried out by the RSPB and part-funded by the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project has estimated that only 542 capercaillie remain in Scotland. The estimate is derived from multiple walked transects across the capercaillie range this winter.

542 birds is the lowest recorded level since the start of the national survey in 1992 – 1994; 51% lower than the 2015/16 estimate; and 85% of the population remains in the Cairngorms National Park. Action in the National Park therefore remains critical to prevent extinction in the UK and build a long-term future for the species.

Collective effort is key

Expert opinion in the 1990s was that capercaillie would be extinct by around 2010. All efforts to help the bird at the time ensured that this didn’t happen. So, we can take some heart from knowing that we may have lost capercaillie in the UK by now had there not been a collective effort to help. This only serves to strengthen the need to continue enabling more people to play their part in helping to look after the bird.

There are several fundamental issues facing the species, not least available habitat, predator management and human disturbance. The Cairngorms Capercaillie Project is particularly focused on the latter and is working with communities of interest and place across the National Park to enable more people to enjoy the area responsibly and in so doing, reduce disturbance to capercaillie. This has never been done at scale before.

Reducing predator pressure

The project is also funding gamekeepers to reduce predator pressure over 8,500 hectares of core capercaillie habitat within the Cairngorms National Park. The project’s Capercaillie Habitat Grant Scheme also provides funding for predator control for capercaillie.

The project was set up to benefit capercaillie and given the critical status of the species advocates an effective, evidence based approach. Published research has shown that both foxes and crows can reduce the breeding success of capercaillie, the project therefore supports fox and crow control for capercaillie where landmanagers wish to undertake it. This involves the project investing over £250,000 in professional predator control which secures the employment of both a full-time gamekeeper, seasonal gamekeepers and their equipment.

Maintaining effective and increased levels of predator control in targeted areas stands to not only benefit capercaillie on the estates where predator control is being carried out, but on neighbouring landholdings too. 

The project conducts brood surveys counting hens and their dependent young each year to gain insights into the success of its predator control work. Typically only one chick per brood will make it to adulthood, so finding just a single chick can still be a huge boost to the gamekeepers employed and funded by the project who work all hours to keep capercaillie safe as described by the project’s full-time gamekeeper in the blog here: keeper-for-capercaillie/

Low numbers and genetic diversity 

In addition to reducing human disturbance and predator pressure, the project is also researching the genetic diversity of the capercaillie population in the Cairngorms National Park to identify whether the gene pool needs to be expanded. 

Photo: Royal Zoological Society of Scotland

Dr Alexander Ball, from RZSS who are undertaking the work, 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.” To find out more about this work read our newspost here: Ground breaking genetic research to help save capercaillie in the UK 

And to find out more about all the project’s work to date, what’s coming up next and how the project’s activities fit in with national work for capercaillie, you can read the newspost here: What next for the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project?

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