Camilla Swift Camilla Swift

The real battle of the Highlands: capercaillie versus pine marten

A real-life Wind in the Willows war has broken out. Except this time, the war isn’t between the Weasels and Badger (he’s busy fighting another battle), and the story has relocated from a Berkshire riverbank to the Scottish Highlands.

This battle is between the pine marten – a weasel-type animal – and the capercaillie, a turkey-sized bird in the grouse family. So what, exactly, is the problem? 

Well, for starters, both species are protected and endangered in the UK, but pine martens are currently doing pretty well in terms of numbers. They might have been almost extinct at the beginning of the 20th century, but have now made a comeback – which is more than can be said for the capercaillie.

There are estimated to be around 3,500 pine martens in Scotland, while there are at most 1,200 capercaillie, which are restricted to the Caledonian pine forest. It’s an understatement to say that the two species don’t get on – it’s well known in the Highlands that in areas with lots of pine marten, capercaillie are few and far between. And in a 2009 study of capercaillie nests, it was recorded that over half of the destroyed nests had been destroyed by pine martens.

As a result, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association are warning that unless something is done about pine marten numbers, capercaillie could soon become extinct – for the second time – in Britain. Their solution? To ‘remove’ a certain number of martens to reduce predation. They claim that the RSPB ‘cannot be trusted to make an unbiased decision’ about how to ensure the future of the capercaillie in the UK, and are ‘letting them die out in the name of political correctness’.

The SGA believe that the RSPB are worried that controlling predator numbers could also lead to legislation regarding the culling of raptors (the protection of which is one of the RSPB’s pet projects) and argue that they shouldn’t be in charge of such a large proportion of the money which has been put aside to protect ‘the horse of the woods’.

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