28 September 2014

Sometimes you find a book that you just can’t put down and that makes you realize the significance of what others have achieved in days gone by in the area in which you live.
One such book is The Capercaillie in Scotland by JA Harvie- Brown. It details the re-introduction of capercaillie to Scotland at Taymouth Castle in 1837-8, and their subsequent spread through Perthshire and beyond.

Capercaillie Extinction
Capercaillie-- by Roger LeeWebCapercaillie are regarded as having went instinct in Scotland in the late eighteenth century. Some people say 1760, others 1785, but it was generally around then. There are records in the early part of the next century, with male birds being reported near Fort William and at Bo’ness on the Firth of Forth. There is a suggestion that as these were both near to ports, that they represent attempts to re-introduce the species. The suggestion has also been made that the capercaillie population on Loch Lomond never actually died out at all, but for the purposes of this account, we will assume the birds died out around about the dates suggested above. The reasons given for extinction are given as habitat loss and fragmentation, but also the numbers of people living in the countryside and their desire to “improve” the country around them. There is no doubt that hunting pressure, legal and illegal, had a part to play in the demise of the capercaillie. Numbers will have been falling for decades before the final extinction.

Early Re-introduction Efforts
In the 1820’s, efforts were made to import birds from Norway to try and kick start a re-introduction, notably at Mar Lodge on Deeside. These efforts involved very small numbers of birds. When they came to Scotland, they were kept in small enclosures. While some eggs were left with the female birds, others were set under domestic hens and black game, and lots of small scale experimentation went on. Many of the birds met with various mishaps, eggs were not viable, or chicks that hatched did not survive very long. There were good intentions involved, but it appears, a good deal of tootering as well. These early attempts all ended in failure, due mainly to inexperience.
There were two fundamental problems. Not enough birds were being used, and they did not respond well to being confined.

Taymouth Emerges
Coire Choille Chuilc PinewoodWebtSubsequently, a Mr Lloyd, a well known Swedish naturalist and sportsman, offered his services to a number of Scottish landowners who might be interested in re-introducing the bird. For a time, no-one showed any interest. However, Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton of Northrepps Hall and Cromer Hall in Norfolk became involved. He was a regular visitor to Taymouth Estate, and a friend of the Earl of Breadalbane. Sir Thomas paid for capercaillie to be brought in from Sweden, co-ordinated by Mr Lloyd. He made available his Norfolk head keeper Larry Banvill, and the Taymouth head keeper James Guthrie looked after the birds.
Some 40-50 were brought in during 1837-8. There were more females than males and crucially, they were not confined to small enclosures, but released around the castle to find their own space in the woods.

Making It Work
James Guthrie was from Arbroath. He is said to have looked after the capercaillie as if they were his own children. He clearly understood the birds, and as well as encouraging natural breeding, he set many eggs under grey hens on Drummond Hill and the population quickly began to expand, despite some initial losses. There was another side to him as well. He was reported to be a ruthless and particularly cruel gamekeeper, killing anything that dared threaten his new stock. He is said to have “hated” all manner of predators, be they animals or birds, and for many decades, spent three nights a week tramping the hills and removing any threats he could find. This on top of his daily chores.
The re-introduction coincided with a wave of new tree planting that had been initiated some years earlier, so the capercaillie found a mix of woodland types and ages that suited them. It also coincided with an enthusiasm for developing sporting estates, and the widespread employment of gamekeepers throughout Scotland. Potential predators of all types would have been getting quickly eliminated. Within a year, birds were appearing near Dunkeld, and further north. Some owners wasted little time in shooting them, but many others were content to let numbers build again.

Spreading Out
Harvie-Brown’s book sets out in considerable detail how the capercaillie spread out from Taymouth, when they arrived at certain estates, and the numbers of birds seen. As with the beavers we have spreading today, it is likely that there would be a time delay between the birds arriving in an area and them being recorded. Some people will doubtless have been content just to keep quiet about them as numbers increased. Typically, it was the hen birds that arrived first, followed within a year or two by the males. The hens would be less conspicuous, and could well have been present in an area before being noticed.
Glenlyon Pine treesWebJames Guthrie’s efforts were so successful that wave after wave of capercaillie radiated out from Taymouth. He had created a real cauldron that overflowed in every direction. The primary route of dispersal was down the Tay towards Dunkeld. Virtually all the wooded areas were on the north side of the river, with the woods above Dull being particularly well suited to the species. The pressure was so great that capercaillie pushed on, up to Blair Atholl, and down and across in to Fife, Stirling and Forfarshire. From there they went north in to the Angus Glens and Kincardineshire and then in to lower Deeside. They quickly accessed the Tummel valley, and moved west through Glen Dochart to Argyll and beyond, becoming resident in large woodland blocks, but using smaller woods as stepping stones. Some people encouraged them, others shot them, but onwards they went. They found it difficult to get established at Rannoch, where the woods were north facing and not so well suited to them, but eventually a population got established there as well, reputedly from just three birds.
Pine trees above KenmoreWebAs well as keeping the cauldron boiling, James Guthrie sent eggs or small numbers of birds to many other areas for satellite re-introductions. He clearly had the knack for catching them up. However, most of these seemed to end in failure, and while additional birds were also brought in from Sweden, the vast majority of the capercaillie in Scotland originated from Taymouth. James Guthrie must have known that small numbers of birds sent to others as a present of goodwill would likely fail, but there would have been peer pressure within the landowning community to try and contribute to the endeavour themselves. The only successful satellite re-introduction was on the island of Arran, but being remote from the mainland, these birds did not affect the wider population spread. They too came from Taymouth. There was more capercaillie in Perthshire than anywhere else, with all but the smallest woods holding them for at least part of the year, and large numbers being shot on sporting drives. The birds pushed on, in to Ayrshire and Dumfries, and down to Dunfermline and in to Mid Lothian. Amazingly, a capercaillie was seen flying across the Meadows in Edinburgh in 1872, and they had accessed Speyside, Morayshire and beyond as well.

Years Later
Tay carseland from Drummond HillWebIt is reported that, 25 years after the re-introduction, the Earl of Breadalbane estimated there to be 1000 birds on Taymouth estate alone. James Guthrie was still there, and he estimated 2000. Taymouth was a lot bigger then than it is now, but even so, this is more birds on one estate than there are today in all of Scotland. There was probably more capercaillie in the upper Tay valley than any other bird or animal. It would be impossible to walk through the woods without seeing them, or indeed, tripping over them. Totally amazing really when you consider than almost all other efforts to introduce the species ended in failure, and that the woods used are all still in existence today, but there are only a few caper left now in Perthshire. Why is that?
The Taymouth success was brought about by the generation of almost factory-style output from a single source, using both natural and artificial means to maximise the production of new birds. They were protected by a level of predator control that could never be tolerated or achieved today. The mix of woods was perfect at the time, with aspect and species mix all suiting the birds. The birds were shot and killed, legally and illegally, but the output was so great that numbers could not be contained, and breeding populations quickly became established in waves going forwards as well, constantly topped up with migrants coming behind them.

Capercaillie in Perthshire Today
FC Timber on Drummond HillWebToday, there are probably only 25-30 capercaillies in Perthshire, maybe 50 at the most, less than the number originally brought to Taymouth. There are all sorts of reasons for this, enough for an article in itself. The main Scottish population now resides on Speyside. The Perthshire birds are scattered around in small groups. Every year, if we are lucky, a small number survive, to replace the small number that die. The population cannot really get going, as it did under James Guthrie, who generated a phenomenal reproduction rate. They are never far from becoming extinct here. We are probably lacking the extent of young woods that existed then, but the tree species mix today is well suited to capercaillie, and woodland connectivity is generally good. We have all sorts of legislation and working protocols to protect capercaillie, but we are lacking the spark to really get them moving again. The capercaillie population on Speyside is healthy and self- sustaining. The population here is struggling, and while they may hold on, it is virtually impossible with such low numbers to develop a head of steam and get going again.
Should we now be contemplating satellite re-introductions in Scotland while the birds still exist in a restricted range elsewhere? As for local reintroductions, I think so. It is very unlikely that capercaillie will become extinct again in Scotland, but they may well spend decades just hanging on in their Speyside retreat while we debate what is best for them, and the habitat we have in Perthshire and elsewhere remains mostly unused.
Somehow, that just feels wrong, and we should be thinking of doing something about it.

A Good Xmas Present
The book by JA Harvie Brown was published in 1879, but re-printed in 2009. It would make an excellent Xmas present for anyone interested in natural history or gamekeeping. You will find a copy on Ebay or Amazon for £14-18 including postage. The 1879 version will set you back maybe £350, but they can be found online as well if you are interested.

Victor Clements
The writer works as a woodland adviser in Aberfeldy in Highland Perthshire

Pictured above (from top): Capercaillie by Roger Lee:  Glen Lyon pine trees;  Pine trees above Kenmore; Tay carseland from Drummond Hill; Forestry Commission timber on Drummond Hill.


 

 

Add comment


Security code
Refresh