486 970x2501

We’re at a fork in the road for Scotlands native capercaillie

Home » We’re at a fork in the road for Scotlands native capercaillie

We’ve recently covered the potential implications to Brewdog’s rewilding efforts. We theorised that the indiscriminate planting of trees would go on to have a negative impact on native species. Almost a month later a report from Nature Scot and Cairngorms Capercaillie Project report just that. Brewdog is absolved in this case but the report shows the findings from other rewilding projects. The numbers of Capercaillie are now estimated to be less than 1000. From here the chances of successful population regeneration is slim but not impossible. Equally, given a couple of decades, this number will dwindle to nothing.

Overview of the Capercaillie

The Capercaillie is a rather large bird with males weighing as much as 5kg with females at about 2kg. They can be found on the floor and up in trees. Their diets consist of berries, shoots and stems often found on well manged land. While previously they could be found across the UK, they became extinct in the 1700s at the same time as wolves. Thankfully, the efforts of landowners meant they were reintroduced into private estates. This success trickled out into the wider landscape creating a healthy wild population. The outbreak of WW1 saw many of the native woodlands felled for the war effort hindering healthy habitats.

The species are independent in their nature. Males don’t stick around to raise the young which leave chicks and female birds in a precarious position. Access to food and water is vital while their habitats need to be low in predators to be successful. Females travel as far as 20 miles to find successful breeding grounds which are becoming harder to come by. Compounding the issue is that these small havens are increasingly vulnerable to poor weather and predators.

Whats the problem?

In of itself, replanting woodland and offsetting carbon is a good idea. These areas create space for species to spread and populate through. The problems begin to arise when these woodlands are planted in the wrong place or using the wrong trees. As we discussed in the Brewdog piece, many trees are going up over moorland and peat bog. When well managed, these areas are fantastic carbon sinks. When trees are planted close or over these areas the ground drys up and the land is lost.

Furthermore, these new woodlands draw on some undesirable residents. Pests like crows and foxes populate the space and make it difficult for native species to put down roots. These woodlands also impact the bordering land by giving pests sanctuary while heading out from woods to predate. Equally, these woodlands are often filled with deer fencing to stop the deers from eating the saplings. These fences can be like a spiders web for older Capercaillie who are prone to becoming tangled in them.

We need Landowners to consider the wider implication of planting trees en mass. Planting the wrong trees fails to serve the native species and can damage ecosystems. Equally, these aren’t areas to be eco gentrified but lands that need management. In cases where there are no gamekeepers, the Capercaillie are isolated. We’ve already seen that after 20 years on the red list that doing nothing isn’t working. Continuing down this path will only have one outcome, for the Capercaillie it doesn’t look good.

Why are the Capercaillie struggling

While Scotland now has much more woodland than it did, little of it offers any benefit to the Capercaillie. Non native species and meagre pest control creates an environment that is hard for the Capercaillie to navigate through. Many birds suffer when caught in deer fencing while non-native trees only draw in competing species. Foxes and Crows predate the ground nesting birds and their eggs. Equally, their favoured pine trees are now residents of more pine martins than ever before.

This only looks set to get worse with more tree’s going up with little consideration for indigenous species. This continued effort to “Greenwash” swathes of open countryside. These rewilding efforts prioritise the volume of trees over species of trees. Subsequently, these areas become loaded with numerous competing species which is only accelerated by the lack of pest control. More trees, more competition, less pest control creates a maelstrom of which the Capercaillie can’t survive.

Equally, the competitive nature of the Capercaillie’s breeding creates another problem. Large males will attract the majority of the female species. This leaves the smaller males at a distinct disadvantage as they struggle to find a mate. If they survive long enough to attract a mate then they may have to travel huge distances to find one. This then puts the Capercaillie at distinct risk of being caught by predators or caught in a deer fence. A combination of low numbers, poor protection and diminishing habitat may only get worse.

What can be done?

The solution has already been proven when the Capercaillie were reintroduced in the 1700s. The solution this time needn’t be so dramatic. Previously the Capercaillie had been totally lost from our shores, this time around this isn’t the case. We have the fortune of established Capercaillie populations they only need our support. To do this, landowners need to own up to the fact that just planting trees isn’t enough. Equally creating woodlands devoid of native species defeats the point of creating woodlands in the first place.

First of all, we need to make sure that the established populations have support and can breed successfully. As the data shows, currently, they’re most in danger when they’re in the nest or as eggs. It’s here that cumulative efforts of pests and predators can have a long lasting impact on breeding success (Point 2.3.1). The evidence is quite clear, these patches of land need to have their predators controlled. Unfortunately, some of this land is owned by the RSPB who have difficulty doing proper pest control, equally, their neighbours are Brewdog who have the same problem. The other land is quickly being rewilded and tree’s planted in great number.

This leads to our second point. The tree’s being planted in these areas need to support the local species. Equally, the new residents need to be in a number that allows the whole ecosystem to thrive. Woodland, like all other landscapes, needs to be managed actively not passively. For example, culling an appropriate number of deer will allow deer fences to come down. Deer fences have already been proven to be a huge obstacle in the success of the Capercaille (6.4).


The Capercaillie is currently resting in a precarious position. The current trend isn’t promising but it’s clear that there are things that can be done. Proper land management including pest control is clearly at the top of the agenda. Building environments that the Capercaillie can live in with minimal competition from pests is the aim of the game. Similarly, controlling pests will allow for other rare and at risk species to thrive at the same time.

While big businesses are all looking to offset carbon, the scope of their impact needs to be considered. The whole purpose is to mitigate the damage done to ecosystems around the world. There’s a severe irony that to fulfil these endeavours a species goes extinct as a result. For Scotland to lose its native species for the second time would be a crying shame. We’ve already trodden the path to both extinction and recovery so the ongoing plan should be clear. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me is the phrase that comes to mind.

Leave a Comment

Looking to read more?

An app for guns, made by guns

Download The Shoot App

Join the community, find local shoots, record your game cards and connect to your guns.

VIP Steel ProEco ShortList 300x250

Join over 10,000 Shoot aficionados

Sign up to The Shoot App newsletter and receive the latest content direct to your inbox!

Jason 2 336x280
970x250px 912X Ad v2