An Indicator of our Indifference

"Indicator Species" refers to the health of a species as an "indication" of the health of the ecosystem in which that species lives. The capercaillie, decline however, from 20,000 to 1,000 birds in just 30 years, gives us more of an indication of our own indifference towards the survival of this spectacular bird once widespread in our forested mountain areas.

Building on Dr Robert Moss's article in our last issue, and his talk at NEMT's IYM weekend in Ballater last year, NEMT has learned more about the complex challenge of reversing this species decline. We have learned of the new and significant EU Life Nature Funding, about the threat of snaring and ultimately that the European Commission had to step in where SNH and Scottish Executive have failed to defend a key location at Nethy Bridge.

Few are more aware of the seriousness of this than retired gamekeeper, Jimmy Oswald, who has lived in Deeside since 1950 and whose father was a gamekeeper before him. Jimmy has to be admired for raising the 16th Petition ever made to the Scottish Parliament - petitions now numbering almost 500. This petition is on Scottish Parliament's website and it states "We, the undersigned, declare that urgent action is needed to reverse the decline of the Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) in Scotland." Jimmy was initially galvanised into action by a meeting in Battleby in February 1999 where he heard the scientists' reports on the capercaillie followed by views from SNH and Forestry Commission. Whilst waiting for Scottish Parliament to be established, Jimmy was successful in getting Lord Thomas of Gresford OBE QC to present a debate on the capercaillie in the House of Lords. This debate, which Jimmy attended, lasted 1.5 hours and was instrumental in raising the political profile of this beleaguered species.

To delve deeper we find UK is one of the few European countries where snaring is still legal and of the widespread, indiscriminate suffering it causes which far outweighs suffering caused by fox hunting. Estates snare foxes to protect grouse and they reason, that by doing so, they also protect capercaillie. Jimmy tells us, however, that never in his days, nor his father's before him, has there been such widespread use of snaring.

In Robert's opinion the main reason for decline of capercaillie is climate change. He does however point out that in the late 90's, an increase in snaring was followed by the loss of 3 large Deeside capercaillie leks and, at the time, keepers freely stated they caught capercaillie in their snares. Whilst Robert is incorrectly quoted as stating cessation of fox-hunting is responsible for the increase in foxes, he agrees with keepers hunting foxes with "foot packs" is an efficient and method of fox control. This together with "den shooting" is more discriminate, less cruel to the foxes and of much less threat to capercaillie.

The good news here is that in April 2003, £ 4.5 million EU Life Nature Funding will be allocated at a launch in Aviemore. The Estates receiving funding will have had approved a scheme that will directly assist the capercaillie. A condition of the funding is that estates alter their keepering to prevent any harm to capercaillie - NEMT is very concerned that this should be so!

Several organisations are involved in the Project with Kenny Kortland, Capercaillie Project Officer, who's position is equally funded by RSPB, SNH and Forestry Commission, being a key player. Kenny states "Any information anybody thinks is relevant to capercaillie is always appreciated and sightings of capercaillie are particularly welcome." NEMT can therefore assist by emailing relevant information to Kenny at More info on how NEMT can assist will also be posted on NEMT's website as it becomes available.

Finally we refer you to the School Wood, Nethy Bridge article in our Spring 2002, Issue No. 49. Here, despite the criticality of this wood for capercaillie, neither SNH or Scottish Executive stood up to the developers Eagle Star and Highland Council and permission to build 40 new houses was granted. It took NGOs to alert EC and a review of this planning application has now been ordered from Brussels. Scotland will still loose if planning permission is revoked, as this puts Eagle Star in a position to claim "hundreds of thousands of pounds" compensation. Yes, we have a lot of lessons to learn - let's hope we are not too late for the capercaillie.

Jennifer A Cook April 2003

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