Unhappy of Northrepps regarding Capercaillie

The results of the fifth national survey of Capercaillie undertaken from November to March 2015/16 by the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage reveals the population is at a very low level. The decline is something I have noticed for some time. I think on balance the RSPB do a good job but certainly at Loch Garten in Scotland investment of our subscriptions falls well short of what in my opinion it should. I wrote to the trustees of the RSPB in April of this year. Below is my letter and their reply. I’d be interested in your thoughts. What do you think should be done?

Professor Steve Ormerod FIEEM
Chairman RSPB 2 Lochside View Edinburgh Park Edinburgh EH12 9DH

22nd April 2017

Official Complaint

Dear Sir,

For the past ten years I have been running a small wildlife tour business based in Norfolk. Each April I have taken a small number of people to Scotland, typically only four or five guests on each occasion. In the course of our tours we have visited the Loch Garten RSPB reserve. Over time I have seen Capercaille numbers gradually fall with sightings becoming less commonplace.

I have always, and will continue to be, responsible; ensuring my guests only view Capercaille at organised watches. As you will know one of the main causes of decline in the Capercaille numbers is disturbance. I feel the RSPB has been complicit in this decline. I view organised watches during the breeding season as essential in maintaining a healthy population.

The hide at Garten is nothing less than a disgrace. It falls well short of being fit for purpose. It is out of date, being built/improved at a time when numbers of visitors were well short of what they are now at the morning Caper Watches. The access to hide viewing windows is therefore a scramble. The viewing windows themselves fall well short of being practical; some being inconceivably small and at simply unsuitable heights.

This has an influence on visitors. I know, I’ve talked to them. I have seen visitors walk out of the early morning Capercaille watches having seen the viewing facilities only to travel to other parts of the forest and enter areas on tracks. This disturbance is unacceptable and of course potentially illegal. The RSPB has a role to play in improving facilities at the Garten hide to avoid this.

The viewing facilities could easily, and relatively cheaply, be improved at the hide. The windows could be made larger and more conventional. To do so would not affect the Ospreys cf the hides at Loch of Lowes. The good internal height of the hide is a blessing. It could easily be fully utilised by way of an internal platform/mezzanine floor making additional viewing positions possible. This would make Capercaillie watching much more successful enabling viewers to look down into the heather to see otherwise hidden birds. Alterations could be done in winter and would for the main part be internal so would not be influenced by bad weather or absent Ospreys.

I realise that the Capercailles will lek in areas where they want to and not necessarily in front of the hide but improvements will enable a better chance of seeing wandering birds if leking is not conducted in the immediate area.

Nothing I have said here is intended to infer anything derogatory regarding the very patient and dedicated volunteers who do nothing short of a miracle in doing the best they can with poor facilities .

I also feel with the falling number of birds in Abernethy that a reintroduction programme should be considered. Are plans in place for this already?

When the RSPB purchased Abernethy and asked for donations I contributed a not inconsiderable amount to assist. I have supported the RSPB and will continue to do so. However, I think now is the time to take some positive action so we can all continue to see Capercaille in Abernethy.

The RSPB has a duty to act … and to act now!

I await your response.

Carl Chapman
Wildlife Tours and Education

Here is the reply

RSPB Scotland

Mr C Chapman

Wildlife Tours and Education
Falcon Cottage 28 Hungry Hill Northrepps Cromer Norfolk NR270LN

3 May 2017

Dear Mr Chapman

Official Complaint

Thank you for your letter to our Chairman, dated 22 April 2017, which he has asked me to respond to.
Before turning to the points you raised, may I start by thanking you for your original support for the
acquisition of Abernethy, back in the late 1980s. Such support was vital, not just in securing this
magnificent reserve for future generations, but also for the sense it gave the RSPB of a mandate to
manage a major Highland Estate for conservation. The fact that so many individual supporters enabled
the acquisition of Abernethy continues, to this day, to validate our management work in the Highlands,
providing for a spectacular diversity of species, not least the capercaillie, to which you refer.

I would also like to applaud your clear desire for, and championing of, wildlife viewing that does not
threaten, disturb or compromise the very species that people wish to see. This is such an important
principle; regrettably, not all who partake in wildlife viewing do so with such awareness and care.

In my reading of your letter, I hope that I have correctly picked up on three key themes. First, a concern
about the viewing facility at Loch Garten, and whether it is fit for purpose; second, a comment on the
decreasing reliability of capercaillie viewing opportunities at Caper-watch, and third, .a suggestion that
reintroduction of capercaillie to Abernethy may be a way forward. I will deal with each of these, in turn,
and in doing so trust that I will address your main concerns.

The restricted viewing at the Osprey Centre is something which we have been aware of for some time,
and we do occasionally get comments about it. It’s perhaps worth bearing in mind that, at the time of the
original construction, we could not have anticipated the opportunity that subsequently arose, to view
capercaillie. This was sheer good fortune, on which we happily capitalised for the benefit ,of the wider
capercaillie population. The original design for the Centre was to enable osprey viewing, for which
disturbance avoidance was – and continues to be – our prime concern. That said, we are currently in the
middle of a significant review of the Osprey Centre viewing provision, and are aware of the potential for
improvements. It is therefore useful to have your observations. As you suggest, we have also
considered a mezzanine viewing area and, whilst not impossible, this poses some significant challenges.
It remains ‘in the mix’ for things that we will consider. Finally on this point, the cost of making such
improvements is on our minds, and we will need to see what funding we can secure to enable the

Five or six years ago, one might have had an 80% chance of seeing capercaillie at Caper-watch. Over
the past few years, this has declined markedly, such that to date in 2017 we had only one successful
morning, with a very brief sighting of a capercaillie. We are as disappointed about this as everyone else.
We see Caper-watch as an important conservation tool, providing an alternative to the irresponsible and
illegal viewing of capercaillie, which you so eloquently expressed in your letter. In June, the team is
meeting to review what we will do with Caper-watch. In 2016 and 2017, we removed all entry fees, to
encourage people to visit, rather than disturb lekking birds elsewhere. However, if people are
unsuccessful – as the vast majority have been in the current season – that continues to be a bad advert!

Our current thinking about Caper-watch is that the issue is not the quality of the viewing facility at the
Osprey Centre, but two other factors. The first factor is that the population at Abernethy has declined,
principally due to poor productivity. We believe this is largely driven by consistently poor (cold, wet)
weather in June (when chicks hatch), and possibly in the spring when hens are getting into condition for
breeding. We have been undertaking significant habitat management work to improve habitat for
capercaillie, with some mixed success. The second factor is that we have some evidence that the centre
of this modest lek has moved away from the area in front of the Osprey Centre. It is common for leks to
move hundreds of metres – perhaps because a new Alpha male adopts a different stance, around which
the other males then become centred; or perhaps because there is a concentration of females in a new
location. The CCTV cameras that we have at the Centre enable us to scan an area well beyond the view
seen direct from the Centre. We are therefore confident that it is not the visibility of the birds that is the
issue at Caper-watch, but the absence of the birds themselves.

In this respect, the best we can do for the birds is to provide them with the best conditions to establish a
strong lek. Where they choose to centre that lek is up to them (and a mystery to us!). We can but hope
that they elect to return to the bog in front of the Centre. All of this, and other factors, will come into play
when we consider the future of Caper-watch in the months ahead.

Now your final point re introduction of capercaillie to Abernethy. There is a national Capercaillie Group
which has been considering this issue in the context of a contracting capercaillie range in Scotland. In

the view of that group, Capercaillie translocation in Strathspey is not currently under active consideration.
This is principally due to the fact that any project of this sort would not meet the IUCN1 quidellnes”, e.g.
that the species is functionally extinct, that there is a clear problem with its genetics and thus population
viability, and that natural re-colonisation is unlikely etc. While the capercaillie populations of individual
forests do fluctuate, the overall Strathspey ‘meta-population’ (of which Abernethy is a part) is stable or
possibly increasing.

We can all hope that the Osprey Centre capercaillie lek will recover, and will therefore continue to provide
an opportunity for ‘safe’ viewing of capercaillie. If that does not happen, we – and others – will continue
to press birdwatchers to view capercaillie responsibly. Some groups have secured agreements for
access to areas of forest in the breeding season, where capercaillie are often seen. The alternative is for
people to try and see capercaillie in the autumn, when they are far less sensitive to disturbance. The
challenge there, however, is that most people have their single trip to the Highlands in spring, and
capercaillie are firmly on their list.

My apologies for such a lengthy reply, but your questions have explored a complex issue, and I was keen
to give you as comprehensive an answer as possible. Whilst I may not have satisfied all your concerns, I
hope you can see that we are aware of such views and are striving to improve the situation by all
reasonable means.

1 IUCN – International Union for the Conservation of Nature

2 https:!/portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/2013-009.pdf


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Jul 2017


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