A large-scale trial is taking place at the RSPB’s Abernethy nature reserve to find out whether technology or livestock is the best approach to restore habitat suitable for capercaillie. The process of habitat restoration, either by machine or mammal, replicates lost natural processes like wildfire and trampling by large herbivores, such as ancient aurochs, an extinct type of cattle. The team wants to find out which method most benefits the capercaillie. 


Who and what is a capercaillie? 

Although slightly complicated to spell, capercaillie (pronounced: caper-kay-lee) are essentially very big grouse. In the UK they are found exclusively in Scotland and are currently a UK Red-listed species. The males are a silky black colour with subtle emerald-green on their chest, in stark contrast they have a hit of bright red over their eye. The females are smaller than the males and incredibly cryptic, so much so that against the Scots pine trees and heather, found throughout the Caledonian forests, you’d find it tricky to see them. That is until they show off their rusty coloured throat and chest.  


Female (foreground) and male (background) capercaillie displaying – Boris Dmetriev/Shutterstock
Female (foreground) and male (background) capercaillie displaying – Boris Dmetriev/Shutterstock 


In 2017, RSPB Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage compiled a study which estimated that there were just 1,114 capercaillies left in the UK. Sadly, it is a combination effect which is causing such heavy declines – their breeding success is affected by rainfall and predation. With mature pine woodlands becoming increasingly fragmented, predators (such as pine martins and foxes) are finding it easier to hunt chicks where nests are confined to smaller areas of forest. The capercaillie chicks that do hatch do so in June and require low rainfall if they are likely to survive, unfortunately the effects of climate change are causing our summers to get wetter which is damaging breeding success further. Thanks to your support, projects such as the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project and this new trial at RSPB Abernethy, are helping to reverse this decline, providing safe breeding grounds, predator control and limiting human disturbance. 


Abernethy’s plan of action 

The Abernethy team will use two techniques on separate, 200-hectare plots, with a third plot set out as a control (using neither cattle nor machine). In the first plot we have the robocutter – a small flail tractor which is controlled remotely by an operator walking behind – to cut areas of rank ground cover, including long heather. The robocutter may seem more imposing and destructive than good old Daisy the cow, however the results are quite the opposite, the key is diversity. 


The robocutter machin in action at RSPB Abernethy - Mike Butler (Abernethy Assistand Warden)
The robocutter machine in action at RSPB Abernethy – Mike Butler (Abernethy Assistant Warden) 


This is not a new technology, but until recently it hadn’t been used in the UK. This technique is more flexible than a conventional tractor – it can access small spaces and avoid rocks, ant hills and patches of blaeberry (also known as bilberry), which is an important foodplant for capercaillie. The removal of long vegetation will provide space for other forest plants to move in, improving botanical and invertebrate diversity. 


In the second test plot we have cattle: 45 cows were introduced to one of the plots between October 2020 and February 2021. They trample the long vegetation, opening up areas for other plants (including blaeberry), while their dung attracts invertebrates. All three plots will be monitored for invertebrates, plants and capercaillie. A previous smaller-scale trial showed an increase in capercaillie presence and initial signs for this larger trial are promising. Watch this space for updates.  


What’s been happening so far? 

Following the first herd of cows that we introduced last winter, the team are already gearing up to welcome them back. They have also introduced an early herd of 10 cows and calves to try out some ‘no fence’ collars that use sound to create a virtual fence. Richard Mason, Abernethy Site Manager, recently did a site check to see how they were getting on, “Plenty of dust baths along the disturbed ground, some narrow-headed ant nests colonising ground trampled by the cattle and lots of other encouraging signs; pine seedlings, blaeberry growing back strong, lesser twayblade, sundew and creeping Lady’s-tresses growing on trampled ground”. The main herd of 45 cows will return in October to continue the trial. 


If you would like to support projects just like the one at RSPB Abernethy, you can donate to our appeals or become a regular giver to support specific teams with their conservation work, on the ground.   


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