CONSERVATIONISTS are using inexpensive hidden cameras to monitor the capercaillie population without disturbing the endangered birds.

The cameras – dotted across the 60,000 hectares of landscape forming the Cairngorms Connect Project area – have captured more than 3000 images and videos of capercaillie.

The species is at real risk of extinction in the UK, with only 542 of the birds estimated to be left in Scotland, according to data released in September. Cairngorms Connect is a partnership that is working to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes within areas of Cairngorms National Park.

Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), one of the partners, placed the cameras in prime locations to help ecologists determine whether efforts to improve capercaillie breeding numbers have been successful this year.

The images are being processed and will help the team assess how many capercaillie hatched and survived during the 2022 breeding season, which ran from March to September. The work was undertaken by Jack Bamber, a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen.

He said: “Traditionally, people used to monitor capercaillie broods by flushing them out with highly-trained pointer dogs. Now, with inexpensive camera technology, we can keep an eye on them without disturbing or distressing them.

“Humans may like a bubble bath, but capercaillie love to bathe in dust. Their dust baths tend to be in areas of exposed earth, like upturned root plates of trees that have fallen over. They bathe in the dust to get rid of lice and pathogens, and it helps remove excess oil from their feathers.

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“We placed more than 80 cameras around dust baths and we’ve now collected over 300,000 images, around 3000 of which contain capercaillie.”

Bamber’s work has been funded by FLS, Wildland Limited and a Natural Environment Research Council doctoral training programme.

The latest national survey in Scotland, conducted over the winter of 2021/22, found the population had dropped around 50% since the last survey six years earlier and is now at a critically low level.

Conservation scientists said the decline is being fuelled by a combination of factors which reduce capercaillie survival and breeding success.

These include cold, wet spring weather – which has an impact on the fitness of female birds before the breeding season and affects chick survival – along with predation and a habitat which remains fragmented in places despite ongoing work to enhance it.

Land managers and organisations like FLS have put special management procedures in place to try to protect them, like removing deer fencing in forests with capercaillie, or making fences much more visible.

As part of the project, food for the capercaillie’s predators is tactically placed in a bid to distract and satisfy the predators, in order to keep capercaillie nests and chicks safe.

Kenny Kortland, FLS wildlife ecologist and lead of the project, said: “A diverse range of bird and animal predators is being restored in the Cairngorms Connect area.

“It is unlikely that culling one species of predator, such as foxes, will benefit capercaillie, given the range of predator species that are present.

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“Therefore, we are trying to distract all the predators with free and easy-to-access food. This approach has worked in a long-term study in Norway, so we are hoping to replicate this success in Scotland.”

Cairngorms Connect is a partnership between Wildland Limited, Forestry and Land Scotland, RSPB Scotland and NatureScot.

Chris Donald, Cairngorms Connect board member and NatureScot head of operations, said “Cairngorms Connect has a long-term, ambitious plan to double the forest in size, which will support a huge range of species, as well as locking up carbon.

“In the short-term, efficient unintrusive monitoring can help us better understand species at risk and the measures required to save them from the edge of extinction.”