Caper Controversy

cartDifficult to resist noting the clamour that has appeared online regarding the GWCT’s proposal to explore the effect of pine marten predation on capercaillie numbers. This non-story was supposedly “leaked” to the press as if it had been wrested through a firewall by eco-hackers, and the sensational response managed to capture everything that is sad and low-brow about conservation. Some squealed that the GWCT were “at it again” with plans to kill martens in order to shoot more grouse (?), while others demanded the instant dissolution of Scottish fieldsports for this final insult to the dignity of fair Caledonia. In reality, the plans didn’t feel like much of a secret to anyone who has actually been following the conservation story, and they certainly didn’t seem very controversial in a case as desperate and as last-ditch as that currently facing the capercaillie.

Surely if we are serious about keeping hold of capercaillie, we should be prepared to try anything. Resistance to the proposals ranged from the passive to the downright rabid. Throughout much of the fury, a continuous thread seemed to indicate that the link between capercaillie decline and pine martens was not properly understood, as if that meant that it did not warrant investigation.

Most confusing of all was RSPB Scotland Director Stuart Housden, who appeared to counter claims that capercaillie are flatlining at all with an announcement on social media that productivity on RSPB reserves in 2014 was “more than one” chick per hen. This was extrapolated as “healthy”, and the statement raised some interesting questions about goalposts and expectations. Aside from anything, it casts the disturbingly misleading impression that there is not much to worry about – that we’ve still got some wiggle-room. When we start using words like “healthy” to describe critically endangered species, we quickly lose touch with the wider context.

“Healthy” is not how I would describe the productivity of a bird that frequently lays a clutch of eight eggs and yet, when surveyed in late summer, only walks with one poult at foot. Brood sizes are a snapshot statistic which have little value in determining how a general population will fare when the time to breed comes round in April or May. We might get in a lather to see that caper hens lay more eggs one year than in previous years, but turning those eggs into breeding birds eleven months later is a long and rocky road. How many of these “more than one” chicks are already dead by the time I type this, or will die during the hard winter? In fact, game brood sizes are more an indication of how conditions have been during the course of the summer, and for a comparative aid, it is useful to see how other wild game species have done in the same conditions.

For instance, take the capercaillie’s closest British relative as a yardstick. For two years in a row, blackgame have exceeded even the most optimistic expectations of their productivity. From Morayshire to Galloway, blackgame have burst out of the doldrums with stunning enthusiasm. There were reports last year of blackgame broods with eleven chicks (staggering – the largest clutch I have ever seen was nine), and this year the story has been repeated, even on ground where management has been lacking. In fact, the birds seem to have done so well that predation has been unable to stop them (a key achievement so sadly lacking for capercaillie). It has represented a stunning turnaround, and new leks sprung up from the ether this spring. For a die-hard blackgame enthusiast, it has been nothing short of miraculous.

So if Mr Housden is pleased with how the capercaillie have done this year, then he will have much in common with the many other wild game enthusiasts who have seen the summer sun work its magic during 2014. But in the context of potential, it is all too tempting to say that if blackgame, red grouse and grey partridges abound in vast broods this autumn, why should anyone be satisfied by these comparatively dire figures from the RSPB, let alone describe them as symptomatic of healthiness.

Something is seriously, gravely wrong, and the RSPB’s response is to say what it isn’t. It isn’t martens. It’s not, it’s habitat, because it’s hard to quantify habitat, and it’s very difficult to argue with such a vague catch-all statement. Importantly, it doesn’t cause any controversy for Joe Member who doesn’t like the idea of meddling with something that used to be rare. An identical line is being followed on behalf of another formerly scarce species at a certain flagship demonstration moor in the Southern Uplands, despite heather growing as thickly and as quickly as wool. In fact, the problem with capercaillie may not be pine martens at all, but surely it would help to find out? Voicing a belief that martens may be playing a part in capercaillie decline is dismissed by the RSPB as a pro-shooting attempt to dig up a new scapegoat, even though their own literature identifies martens as a key predator species.

Closing down the discussion is short-sighted showmanship designed to capture the hearts (and the BACS details) of the masses. But we don’t have time to think about the impact of martens at some point in the future – we need to talk about it now.

We are clearly going to have to think “outside the box” on this one – despite being trialled for a decade, conventional habitat management techniques alone have not shown fruit, and examples where capercaillie have done any more than simply cling to stability are thin on the ground. Even where they have shown progress, it has been in ones and twos rather than tens and twenties, then back to nil again in a wet year.

In my late twenties and recently married, I feel despondently certain that my children will never see a capercaillie. In fact, I have only seen a handful, and I have had to fight hard and travel far to see them. I once got up at 2:15 in the morning so that I could drive through the night to see a lek on Speyside, so perhaps my determination has allowed me to see more than most my age. The current rantings in the Scottish parliament about a land grab will almost certainly be devastating for blackgame, and if capercaillie vanish then it really is not so hard to see their cousins vanishing too – a devastating future beckons. And to call it devastating is no hyperbole for someone who spends their entire life thinking about grouse.

Over the past century, we have changed the capercaillie’s habitat beyond all recognition. Only fragments of it remain. Their decline showed how unwilling they were to compromise with us, but politics and self-interest now mean that we are unable to compromise with them.

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