The chairman of the Perth-based gamekeeping body for Scotland has hit out at environmental policies for pushing one of the country’s rarest birds to the brink of extinction for a second time.
A study by the NatureScot agency warned the capercaillie – the largest of the grouse species and known as the ‘cock-of-the-woods’ – will disappear from its last remaining pockets within two to three decades.
The Western capercaillie became extinct in the UK in the late 18th century but was successfully reintroduced to Scotland in the middle of the 19th century, with the population growing to around 20,000 by the 1970s.
NatureScot’s report reveals those numbers have plummeted to just 1114 birds, with most of them living among the forests of the Cairngorms.
NatureScot said predation from foxes, pine martens and crows was the biggest factor in the capercaillie’s decline, alongside increased visitor numbers and recreational activities.
Alex Hogg MBE, chair of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA), based at Inveralmond, said the report showed that his members had been right all along in calling for predator control to protect Scotland’s wildlife.
He explained: “A sizeable chunk of Scotland’s last remaining capercaillie forests, managed by Forestry and Land Scotland and RSPB Scotland, have had no predators controlled in them for years. The loser has been the capercaillie.
“Hopefully this science is now the beginning of that damage being undone.
“Gamekeepers have been lone voices, often discredited when speaking about capercaillie. This science is an endorsement that they were correct.
“Now we need to undo the years of waste, and mis-spent public money, and get on and save this iconic species.”
The study by NatureScot said that “renewed intensive measures” to protect eggs and chicks are needed to save the capercaillie, which in the UK, is found only in Scotland.
Exclusion zones around breeding areas for the capercaillie are being planned in popular hiking areas to save Scotland’s most threatened bird from extinction.
The “refuges”, which will also affect cyclists, would be put in place either permanently or seasonally in the spring and summer to protect the birds from human disturbance at critical times.
Conservation scientists are also calling for greater control of predators such as foxes and pine martens as well as removal of unmarked deer fences which can kill young birds.
Any delay “might result in the population declining to a point where extinction becomes inevitable,” the report goes on to warn.
Controlling predators is the key measure, although in the case of pine martens, this would involve a trap and release to other parts of the UK rather than culling.
Another less deadly alternative would be “diversionary feeding” of predators during the breeding season.
The report also suggests improved efforts to mark or remove deer fences, which can cause injury or death to birds in flight.
Eileen Stuart, deputy director of Nature and Climate Change at NatureScot, said: “It’s clear that the future of capercaillie in Scotland is extremely vulnerable.
“This excellent report sets out the scientific evidence on capercaillie conservation and management, and the steps that are now needed to help save this key species.”