The 2022 capercailie survey results have been published, and it’s clear that things are even worse than anybody feared. News coverage this morning has emphasised a greater sense of urgency than ever before, and it’s clear that we’re potentially entering an endgame situation for the species.

Having travelled north to meet and interview a range of capercaillie conservationists earlier this summer, I felt like I’d gathered some useful context on the subject as it stands today. Reading back through the new (2022) conservation report commissioned by NatureScot to identify a plan for protecting these birds, there were a few clear directions of travel. The authors recommended practices like habitat creation and a reduction in human disturbance, and they also emphasised the importance of predator control. The report closed with the explicit recommendation that stakeholders should not restrict themselves to implementing one or two of the recommended options, but all of them together. 

The report framed its recommendation in a context of pressing urgency; only a swift and radical change of approach can save these birds. At the time, I felt that part of the issue depended upon whether or not land managers would be granted a licence to control pine martens. The report certainly headed in that direction, but a certain flabbiness of language allowed for prevarication around control of predation, not predators. That’s where ideas emerged around non-lethal control, including contraception for pine martens and diversionary feeding. I felt jaded about these ideas because we don’t actually know if they will reduce pine marten predation on capercaillie – if we decide to adopt them, we’ll have to wait until we gather the data… which is time we do not have.

But irrespective of the pine marten licensing issue, some of the publicity around this latest survey has been desperately downheartening because it has failed to acknowledge the value of conventional predator control. Even in July, I worried that some big stakeholders (specifically Cairngorms Connect and RSPB) would start to cherrypick the work they wanted to do from the Scottish Government’s report, ignoring the options they felt were unpalatable. That fear has come true. In this article in the Guardian, there is a systematic emphasis on managing human disturbance and removing deer fences without a single mention of controlling foxes and crows. Predation control is given an oblique reference, but only as part of a trial into diversionary feeding. 

That’s an extraordinary fluff, and it’s something like a middle-finger to the privately owned estates which spend thousands of hours on predator control each year. Some of these estates have been begging their neighbours to join them and help with this work, but in the capercaillie’s darkest hour when independent scientists have reviewed the data and reconfirmed the value of controlling foxes and crows, the headlines have been grabbed by organisations who studiously ignore it, preferring to focus on fences and mountainbikers. The problem is clearly worse than ever before – and yet the “radical” response is simply to increase a focus on existing measures. 

The publicity around this latest survey makes for grim reading, and for reasons which go beyond the precarious state of the capercaillie. Modern conservation is rightly dominated by talk of partnership working, and it’s clear that collaboration is a crucial direction of travel – however, collaboration has to be based on trust and compromise. Measured against wider issues of climate change, the capercaillie’s extinction is only a small thing, but issues like these give us an opportunity to learn how we can work together, developing relationships which will help us to tackle bigger challenges.

This kind of partnership working brings a wide range of stakeholders together, from gamekeepers and foresters to ecologists and birders. Some of these groups have a long history of conflict, so it’s not always easy to get everybody together in the same room. But for all that difficulty, it’s clear that success depends upon everybody pulling in the same direction and developing a sense of coherent consensus – even where that means acknowledging the value of things we might not like. For this reason, the frustration around this latest capercaillie survey has nothing to do with predator control, pine martens or capercaillie at all. It’s a frustration with a partnership in which some partners feel able to act independently; where trust is shattered and conflicts are perpetuated. After this morning, it feels like many of these petty battles will endure long after the last capercaillie is dead.


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