First glimmers of hope for Scotland's capercaillies

IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, 4 February 2005. After more than 20 years of alarming decline in the closing decades of the 20th century, the results of the third national winter survey of capercaillie numbers in Scotland reveals that numbers are now stable and may have even increased. The results of the survey, published in the most recent edition of Grouse News #28, the newsletter of SSC’s Grouse Specialist Group, is welcome news for one of Britain’s most impressive but threatened birds. Significant conservation action (such as habitat management and fence removal) and more favourable weather conditions during the most recent breeding seasons are thought to explain this positive result.

Western Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus)

The capercaillie is a large grouse adapted to boreal forest. Shrubs, such as bilberry, provide important food and cover. The birds feed exclusively on conifer needles in the winter but eat leaves, buds, flowers and fruits of a variety of trees and shrubs at other times of the year. The capercaillie is found throughout the northern forests that stretch from Scandinavia to Siberia, but in temperate western and central Europe, its distribution is fragmented as these habitats are restricted to mountainous areas.

In Britain, capercaillie are only found in the Scottish Highlands where they have been declining since the 1970s. Numbers have declined from approximately 10,000 to only 2,000 birds today. Similar declines have been noted in many other countries in central and western Europe. Habitat loss, fragmentation and deterioration are believed to be the principle causes in most cases. Capercaillie are habitat specialists and therefore sensitive to changes in habitat structure. Due to their large spatial requirements, they are also susceptible to changes at the landscape scale, and are adversely affected by changes such as forest fragmentation. In some situations, other factors, such as predation, over-exploitation, poor weather during the breeding season, collisions with power-lines and fences, and human disturbance or a combination of these have also been responsible for local declines.

Much research is being undertaken in Scotland, Switzerland, France and elsewhere in Europe to identify conservation measures required to halt and reverse these declines. The winter survey results from 2003/4 show that in Scotland at least, these measures may at last be starting to bear fruit. However, in Scotland, capercaillie are distributed in six discrete sub-populations and research reveals that there is little genetic mixing between them. This is a worrying discovery as small isolated populations have a higher risk of extinction due to loss of genetic variation and chance events.

Conservation efforts are now being focused on linking these separate sub-populations by improving habitat management in strategically located woods. In addition, formal large-scale plans are being developed to manage forests for capercaillie at the landscape scale. This would not be possible without the support and cooperation of private and state foresters. The involvement of the state forestry agency (Forestry Commission Scotland) is crucial and already over 12,000 ha of forest are being managed with capercaillie requirements as a high priority. It is hoped that this will result in further improvements in the capercaillie’s fortunes in Scotland and that conservation actions elsewhere in Europe will be able to benefit from the experience gained.

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For further information contact:

Anna Knee or Andrew McMullin, IUCN Species Programme Communications Officers
Tel: +41 (0)22 999 0153
Email:[email protected]

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