Scotland’s gamekeepers are warning the iconic capercaillie faces extinction for a second time unless urgent action is taken to tackle pine marten predation.
The keepers fear the Caper is doomed unless conservationists advising government agencies “get real” with the problem of pine marten, which are a protected species like the capercaillie.
The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) is seeking a trial to trap pine marten and remove them from the Caper breeding areas.
They claim a second extinction of the famous bird is perilously close, despite an assurance by First Minister Alex Salmond that the Caper would not be allowed to ‘die on his watch’.
The capercaillie became extinct in Scotland in 1785 and was reintroduced in the 19th century with Swedish stock.
While individual birds exist in fragmented pockets, the only remaining viable breeding population exists in Badenoch and Strathspey.
And while better weather in 2013 is expected to show fragile productivity increases, gamekeepers expect those gains to be off-set by predation in the coming months.
The SGA warned 12 years ago that increased predation, by pine marten, foxes and crows, would imperil the largest member of the grouse family.
A scientific study in 2009, using cameras at 20 nests, showed predators destroying 65% of those nests in Abernethy Forest, part of a reserve run by RSPB.
Of those destroyed, 57% were proven to be by pine marten, which, like the capercaillie, is legally protected but significantly more numerous.
Members of the Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) group for capercaillie have acknowledged the need for a trial removal of pine marten from core areas to assess the problem.
But, no research license has been granted and frustrated gamekeepers, represented on the group, fear conservationists are running scared of making the tough decisions required to prevent the bird becoming extinct.
SGA’s Allan Hodgson, who sits on the BAP group, said: “If all the right things are done, there is still a good chance we could save the capercaillie.
“However, there needs to be some hard decisions taken and some bravery from the government and those advising them when it comes to dealing with the pine marten issue.
“Unless advisors make the case that having an infinite number of predators and a finite number of prey in the remaining core area is unsustainable, the capercaillie will be lost.
“When it was suggested deer fences were the problem for capercaillie, they were removed quickly. When it was suggested habitat loss was the problem, lots of public money was ploughed into that.
“All of these things are important, as is weather, but it has taken those tasked with saving Capercaillie far too long to act consistently on predation, despite warnings from practical land managers.
“It has been danced around for years at meetings because no one has been willing to get their hands dirty; fearful it may make them unpopular with their members.”
He added: “There seems to be a realisation, finally, that predation by foxes and crows is a problem but on areas such as the RSPB reserve at Abernethy, where chick productivity has been consistently poor, the control of foxes is inadequate.
“ The habitat there draws in capercaillie from other areas to be eaten. Forestry Commission rangers are now doing a bit more predator control but it is like placing a sticking plaster over a mortal wound.
“What’s needed are new conservation measures, alongside the existing programme of work, and that must include measures to deal with all predators and pine marten in the remaining core Capercaillie area.”
A managed scientific trial using live traps to capture and transfer pine marten during the breeding season in the remaining capercaillie heartland has been mooted.
Mr Hodgson said: “This is not about popularity contests, it is about stepping up to save a bird which has a resonance with Scotland or just letting it die without getting the gloves off.”