ONE of Scotland’s most iconic but endangered animals is showing early signs of recovering its population numbers, experts have said.

The number of capercaillie hens and cocks attending “leks” – displays where males compete for female attention – has risen into 2023, according to ecologists from Forestry and Land Scotland.

While a survey in late 2022 estimated that there may be as few as 542 capercaillies – the largest grouse on earth – left in Scotland, newer data has suggested the figure may be on the rise.

Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) said that at least 30 capercaillie hens had been seen at leks on FLS land in Strathspey in 2023, the most in years.

And the number of males strutting their stuff also rose, with 58 being counted this year compared to 52 in 2020.

Experts said the figures, while small, buck the trend of the last few years and give some hope for this endangered species.

The National: Capercaillie

Kenny Kortland, an FLS wildlife ecologist, said: “Although it’s encouraging to see the number of males is up this year, following year-on-year declines since 2019, it was particularly encouraging to see at least 30 hens in attendance this year, which is fantastic.

“It’s more difficult to count the hens, as they’re often up on the branches or flying around to get the best view of the displaying males. Getting a precise count is very difficult, so 30 is a conservative estimate, there were likely a good few more. “It’s important to have as many hens as possible because capercaillies don’t pair up, only a few of the males mate with the hens.

“Sadly, in declining capercaillie populations, the hens tend to decline more rapidly, because they are shorter-lived and also more vulnerable to predators.”

Kortland said ecologists were “confident that the increase is real” after completing survey work using camera traps with the help of Jack Bamber, a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen.

He further said the warm, dry weather had been “ideal” for young capercaillies.

“What appears to be crucial is for the weather to be favourable during key parts of the breeding season. Dry, warm weather during late May and early June, when the capercaillie chicks are wee, is particularly important, and we had that in 2022. So far in 2023, it’s been the same, so we have our fingers crossed for another increase in 2024!” Kortland said.

He also explained that the increase in the number of capercaillies being spotted at the leks was particularly interesting as it was happening while “the number and diversity of predators are increasing”.

He said: “Some people argue that predator control is necessary for capercaillie to prosper, but the increase in capercaillie hens and cocks in FLS woods in Strathspey shows that the birds can increase in the presence of foxes, pine martens and raptors.

“Counts by our staff in another of our managed forests near Tain were also the highest since 2011, with 11 males and at least seven females. Again, this is a site with no predator control and populations of pine martens, foxes, crows and goshawks.”

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He added: “In fact, our studies in Strathspey indicate that the return of certain predators may be of benefit to capercaillie. We’ve found that goshawks – which have returned to Strathspey in the last decade or so – eat a lot of crows, particularly jays, but they don’t eat capercaillie.

“Crows are known to plunder capercaillie nests and to eat their eggs, so it looks like the return for goshawks has resulted in a net benefit for capercaillie.”

Diversionary feeding of the predators that raid capercaillie nests, along with tactics such as fence removal and habitat improvement, has been deployed by FLS in recent years in a bid to improve capercaillie numbers.

FLS, a member of the Cairngorms Connect partnership, said that it had installed “hundreds of cameras across the project area to get a more accurate picture of capercaillie distribution and breeding success across the Highlands”.

While capercaillies are considered at extreme risk in Scotland, globally they are listed as being of “least concern” due to populations which spread from Norway across the majority of Russia.