THE Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) has blamed conservationists for the decline of the capercaillie population in Scotland, claiming that the failure to lethally control the number of foxes and crows has led to the species falling numbers.

Chairman of the SGA, Alex Hogg, took aim at the RSPB, NatureScot, and Danish millionaire landowner Anders Povlsen’s company Wildland Ltd in a statement.

He said: “For years now, Wildland, RSPB and government agencies FLS and NatureScot, in the Cairngorms Connect partnership area, have not managed foxes and crows, the biggest predators of Capercaillie.

“Unless you lessen the predatory pressure, quickly, it will go. We are looking at a second Scottish extinction.”

Capercaillie first went extinct in Scotland in the mid-18th century due to the loss of its woodland habitat.

In 1837, birds from Sweden were reintroduced into Perthshire which were followed by later reintroductions in Scottish pinewoods.

Scotland remains the only country in the UK where capercaillie can be seen.

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However, the latest survey into their numbers found that their population had dropped around 50% since the last survey 6 years ago. 

A recent report by NatureScot’s scientific advisory committee said that the species could disappear from Scotland within the next two to three decades.

NatureScot has pointed to predation on eggs and young chicks as one of the causes of the capercaillie’s rapid decline, along with increased human disturbance in their habitat which may impact their breeding success.

It is estimated that only 542 birds are left in Scotland, with the report suggesting increased predator control could help boost their numbers.

Commenting on the report Hogg said: “The reality is, it’s closer to 300.

“Capercaillie survival has never been about predator control only. It has always been about both [habitat creation and predator control]. That is clear.

"However, the prevailing emphasis in the projects to save the Capercaillie have always leant towards habitat creation, first. [which is] work the conservation NGOs would probably have done anyway."

He added: “Yes, creating habitat is good. We all do it, not just the NGOs. That is not the key issue now for the Capercaillie. The numbers are so low as to be almost unviable.

“The fact is, the Government agencies, rewilding landlords and conservation NGOs comprising that partnership now need to look to themselves in the mirror because whether we continue to have Capercaillie in Scotland depends now on what they do next.

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“It is they who hold the future of the Caper in their hands because the major percentage of the remaining forests are owned or managed by them.”

However, while the RSPB said it largely agreed with the report’s findings it was concerned about predator control being over-emphasised.

“We do have some concerns about the over-emphasis of the importance of evidence underpinning predation and predator control, and under-emphasis of the impacts of climate change and habitat management.” said the RSPB.

“We believe these need to be addressed when deciding on actions to take forward to help capercaillie."

It added: "Our Abernethy nature reserve is trialling such an approach using long-term, large-scale habitat restoration as part of Cairngorms Connect, rather than intensive predator control that cannot be sustained.

“Despite ceasing fox and crow control in the last five years at Abernethy, the number of capercaillie males counted at leks has remained stable since 2013, and the 2022 count is the highest we have seen for a decade."

A spokesperson for NatureScot said: “While some studies have shown that very intensive predator control will benefit woodland grouse, including capercaillie, such intensive effort is rarely sustainable, particularly over a large area and long timescales.

“We need to develop further work to understand how landscape-scale habitat management could be used to provide longer-term sustainable solutions to reduce impacts of predators on species such as capercaillie. This would greatly reduce the need for continued expenditure of huge resources on lethal control."

Peter Cairns, executive director of rewilding charity SCOTLAND: The Big Picture, said the long-term goal for the conservation of the species had to be about re-establishing lost natural systems.

He told The National: “While there is some evidence of the efficacy of short-term, localised predator management, this ‘pick and mix’ approach to prioritising one species over another has failed to arrest and reverse ecological decline.

“We believe that providing the space and conditions to re-establish dynamic natural processes, including predator-prey interactions, has to be the long-term focus for sustaining the living systems on which all species depend.”

The capercaillie is the largest member of the grouse family and despite its range once stretching as far west as Loch Lomond it is now largely restricted to the forests in the Badenoch and Spey area of the Cairngorms.