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At least 30 capercaillie hens attended leks in managed forests on Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) land in Strathspey this year, the most in years. 

The number of male capercaillies displaying on the leks was also up to 58 from 52 in 2020.  

This bucks the trend of the last few years and gives some hope for this endangered species. 

Ecologists from Forestry and Land Scotland keep a watchful eye on capercaillie leks each year to check numbers. 

Capercaillies have been declining significantly in Scotland for many years: the last national survey in 2022 indicated there were only around 500 birds left.

Over the past 20 years, FLS has implemented a range of conservation measures to try to boost the bird’s numbers. This has included fence removal, habitat improvements and, more recently, diversionary feeding of predators that raid capercaillie nests.  

Numbers from this year’s Strathspey leks indicate the FLS team’s efforts have had some success and offer some hope for the future of the capercaillie. 

Kenny Kortland, wildlife ecologist for FLS, said:

“Although it’s encouraging to see the number of males is up this year, following year-on-year declines since 2019, it was particularly encouraging to see at least 30 hens in attendance this year, which is fantastic. 

“It’s more difficult to count the hens, as they’re often up on the branches or flying around to get the best view of the displaying males. Getting a precise count is very difficult, so 30 is a conservative estimate, there were likely a good few more.  

“It’s important to have as many hens as possible because capercaillies don’t pair up, only a few of the males mate with the hens. 

“Sadly, in declining capercaillie populations, the hens tend to decline more rapidly, because they are shorter-lived and also more vulnerable to predators.”

Kenny continued:

“We have been working with Jack Bamber, a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen, who has been deploying camera traps to monitor capercaillie breeding success. In 2022, we observed quite a lot of broods in FLS forests, not least because the weather was ideal for them – warm and dry.  These young birds from 2022 will have attended the leks in 2023, so we are confident that the increase is real.  

“What’s really interesting is that the birds are increasing in an environment that is recovering ecologically and within which the number and diversity of predators are increasing – yet FLS hasn’t been carrying out lethal control of any predators. 

“Some people argue that predator control is necessary for capercaillie to prosper, but the increase in capercaillie hens and cocks in FLS woods in Strathspey shows that the birds can increase in the presence of foxes, pine martens and raptors. 

“Counts by our staff in another of our managed forests near Tain were also the highest since 2011, with 11 males and at least seven females. Again, this is a site with no predator control and populations of pine martens, foxes, crows and goshawks.

“All these predators interact in various fascinating ways. For example, foxes will kill pine martens, and martens will raid raptor nests. 

“If you leave the predators alone, rather than culling some of them, there is a natural limit to how many can live in a forest, and capercaillies can do absolutely fine in the presence of that number of predators. 

“In fact, our studies in Strathspey indicate that the return of certain predators may be of benefit to capercaillie. We’ve found that goshawks – which have returned to Strathspey in the last decade or so – eat a lot of crows, particularly jays, but they don’t eat capercaillie.  

“Crows are known to plunder capercaillie nests and to eat their eggs, so it looks like the return for goshawks has resulted in a net benefit for capercaillie.” 

Kenny said that weather played a big role in capercaillie numbers. 

“What appears to be crucial is for the weather to be favourable during key parts of the breeding season. Dry, warm weather during late May and early June, when the capercaillie chicks are wee, is particularly important, and we had that in 2022. So far in 2023, it’s been the same, so we have our fingers crossed for another increase in 2024!”

The FLS team is keen to keep capercaillie numbers up, and recently launched a campaign to raise awareness about how to safeguard wildlife in Scotland’s forests. 

Kenny said:

“Capercaillies are sensitive to disturbance, and tend to avoid good habitat close to tracks. 

“That reduces the number of birds that can live in a given forest because only so many can cram into the undisturbed areas, which are becoming smaller and smaller as increasing numbers of people venture off tracks and into more remote areas.  

“People should come and enjoy themselves in Scotland's forests, but be mindful of the impact their actions might have. 

“We urge people to stick to official paths and tracks as much as possible. Wildlife, including capercaillies, can adapt to predictable human activity, but as networks of unofficial tracks develop, the amount of available habitat declines."

FLS works to protect and boost capercaillie numbers across its estate. It is a member of the Cairngorms Connect partnership and in 2022 installed hundreds of cameras across the project area to get a more accurate picture of capercaillie distribution and breeding success across the Highlands. 

Notes to editors

  1. Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) manages forests and land owned by Scottish Ministers in a way that supports and enables economically sustainable forestry; conserves and enhances the environment; delivers benefits for people and nature; and supports Scottish Ministers in their stewardship of Scotland's national forests and land.

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  3. Media enquiries to Paul Munro, Media Manager, Forestry and Land Scotland Media Office 07785 527590 or