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A large rotund black bird with fan-shaped tail standing on a dirt gravel road surrounded by tall green coniferous trees

Forest management today is about much more than planting and harvesting trees. Just one of the areas we focus on is making sure the woods provide the best possible conditions for wildlife, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that forests managed for timber production provide an excellent habitat for many species, including the magnificent capercaillie.

Our management of the National Forest Estate in Strathspey has seen capercaillie numbers increase dramatically and has earned Forest Enterprise Scotland a top award.

Creating the perfect habitat

In forests where capercaillie are found, we have removed as much of the deer fencing as possible – and marked the few remaining fences to make them more visible to flying birds. We also avoid doing forestry operations during sensitive times in the capercaillie breeding season.

Adult birds eat conifer needles from autumn to spring, but switch to a diet of blaeberry, heather and other ground vegetation in late spring. Young chicks feed on insects and spiders they find in the vegetation. By lightly thinning tree cover and using alternatives to clear felling, we’ve found that both blaeberry and insects flourish. Good news for capercaillie.

View through a forest with grassy forest floor and tree trunks rising upwards

Fifteen years ago, when we started the capercaillie project, only six displaying males were known to be in the area but now this has jumped to forty-three. This could mean that overall around 200 capercaillie could be thriving in the Strathspey on the National Forest Estate.

Kenny Kortland, Species Ecologist, Forest Enterprise Scotland, said: 

Throughout this period we have actively managed the timber resource and have provided recreational opportunities for over 300,000 visitors every year. We have also carried out on-going research and this has shown that our forest management creates ideal habitat for the capercaillie.

These efforts appear to be working because the birds have shown a spectacular increase. In our view, this clearly indicates that caper can prosper in well managed, working forests. The key seems to be that thinning the forest to extract timber creates ideal habitat for capercaillie chicks, because breeding success has been high by contemporary standards.”

Our wildlife experts are also interested that capercaillie numbers are increasing at a time when other potential predators have too. They believe that each of the predator groups are naturally keeping numbers down which in turn has had positive spin offs for the capercaillie.

Kenny continued:

We think that the various predators are controlling each other and this allows the capercaillie to thrive.  For example, goshawks are recent colonists of these woods and they are eating a lot of crows, which eat capercaillie eggs.  Similarly, foxes prey upon pine martens, which eat capercaillie eggs and young. This all challenges the dogma that predator control is crucial for the persistence of grouse populations.”

The success of our work was recognised by The Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management who awarded us with their prestigious Corporate Achievement Award in recognition of the 15-year effort to integrate timber production and recreation with capercaillie conservation.

Ken Sinclair, current Operations Manager in Inverness, Ross & Skye Forest District, commented:

Over a decade ago we noticed that areas we had thinned attracted lots of capercaillie, and recent research carried out by FES and the James Hutton Institute has shown that thinning racks are ideal habitat for capercaillie chicks. It shows that timber production and conservation of rare species can be perfectly compatible. We are delighted to receive this award."

Two men in blue shirts holding awards while smiling at the camera

(Pictured - Graeme Prest, Forest District Manager, and Martin MacPherson, H&M Forester, Inverness, Ross & Skye Forest District.)