ONE of Scotland's most famous birds, the capercaillie, has become virtually extinct in most parts of the country and is now largely confined to just 11 square miles of woodland in Strathspey, according to research by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).
• The iconic birds now live mainly in just 11 square miles of woodland in Strathspey Picture: PA
It estimates that there are now only about 2,000 individual capercaillies left in Scotland, although some experts place the figure as low as 500.
There are serious concerns that the bird could become completely extinct in Britain.
The SNH study, carried out last year, found 47 capercaillie hens and 66 chicks at ten sites, and reaches the higher figure by extrapolation.
The species' name is derived from the Gaelic capull coille, meaning "horse of the woods". The birds are best known for their spectacular leks, or spring mating displays, at which a number of cocks compete for the attention of hens. At the end of the display, the "alpha cock" gets to mate with most of the hens present.
The SNH report says that capercaillie breeding success last year 2010 was the highest for four years and the second highest since recording began in 1991, but admits the results are "driven primarily by the five sites surveyed in the core Strathspey region".
The report reveals that last year 94 per cent of all hens were in Strathspey. In 2004, the figure was 67 per cent. Previous counts were based on capercaillie numbers across 19 sites but nine had to be dropped because sightings were so low.
Of the remaining ten, no capercaillie were found at one, no hens at another and only three had the requisite ten or more hens from which breeding success can be estimated to a reliable degree, all of which were in Strathspey.
The report warns that the bird may have suffered "further range contraction" since 2004, adding: "The apparently low densities of hens in the other regions may have negative consequences for the species' national distribution which . . . could decrease its resilience to future localised environmental change."
Alex Hogg, chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers' Association, said capercaillie had been victims of the "sink effect", which occurs when a species is unable to expand its population due to predation.
He said: "We alerted SNH five years ago that something had to be done to control predation by buzzards and pine martens, but the warnings fell on deaf ears.
"We would suggest the estimate of 2,000 capercaillie in Scotland is unrealistically high. It's probably closer to 500."
The bird, the largest member of the grouse family, has suffered extinctions in Britain before.It first disappeared in the 1780s and has been reintroduced at various times since the 1830s.
Ron Macdonald, SNH's head of policy and advice, said the breeding success recorded within Strathspey was "good news" but warned that pockets of smaller populations of the bird elsewhere in Scotland were at risk.