|Image - Laurie Campbell|
If you walk through a Scottish pine forest and are lucky enough to hear and then see a ‘Horse of the Woods’ you will be amazed. That’s because the sound, like clopping hooves, will likely be coming from a one meter tall bird, a cock capercaillie, trying to attract a mate. Unfortunately this experience is becoming less and less likely. There are just 1,300 male capercaillie left in the UK (a 42% decline in 17 years) and the capercaillie is declining around the world.
Great effort has gone into improving Scottish forest habitat, but the decline still continues - sometimes more, sometimes less rapidly. The long-term decline seems to be caused by poor breeding success; cold, damp weather and high numbers of predators leading to the poorest breeding success. And studies at Abernethy Forest have shown pine martens to be a significant nest predator.
How important are pine martens in causing these declines?
No one knows; but we need to if our conservation efforts are to be best focussed. So there is a proposal to find out. The pine marten population is growing in Scotland and the idea is to study the pine marten population in four forests for six years. In two of the woods martens would be removed for each of three years, perhaps equating to 10 pine martens each year, to see if this will increase capercaillie breeding success. Then the treatment would be reversed and martens would be removed from the other two forests.
Is this a cull?
No. There is no plan to lethally control the pine martin population across Scotland. If the research indicates increasing pine martens are a factor in capercaillie declines, efforts may be focussed only on a small area in Strathspey, helping protect 75% of our remaining capercaillie.
Is this level of intervention new?
No. Predator control for conservation is already undertaken.
Is it true the capercaillie has been extinct before?
Yes. The capercaillie became extinct in the 18th century following extensive felling of pinewood habitats and a run of cold, wet summers in the 'Little Ice Age'. It was re-introduced into Scotland, by landowners with an interest in shooting, in the mid-19th century. By the 1970’s there were 20,000 capercaillie in Scotland.
Are capercaillie still shot?
No. There was a voluntary moratorium on shooting from the late 1980s and full legal protection came in 2001 - but the decline of the capercaillie still continues.
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