NATIONAL PARKS: What right does Capercaillie Group have to put up signs telling others what to do?

By Bill Heaney

Why should people keep their dogs to heel when they take them walking in the National Park?

The Scottish Outdoor Access Code message about keeping dogs to heel until August is to help protect capercaillie, which are under serious threat of extinction and whose chicks are vulnerable for longer than other ground nesting birds.

However, given capercaillie are only found in limited areas within the National Park – for a time they could be spotted on an island on Loch Lomond, but died out there  –  the Cairngorms NPA appears to have recognised that its park-wide messaging should revert to the time-periods set out in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

Parkswatch Scotland campaigner Nick Kempe, right,  said: “The SOAC then allows site specific guidance which, in the case of dogs and capercaillie breeding, could apply for the longer period of April – mid-August.

“The principle is the same as that behind the long-established and accepted practice of asking people not to climb  on certain crags between specific dates to protect nesting birds. Instead of requiring dog walkers or climbers to exercise restraint everywhere, you just ask them to do so where needed.”

Local messaging has now been developed by the Carrbridge Capercaillie Group, part of the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project (see here) which has received £2 million from the National Heritage Lottery Fund to save the species from extinction once again in Scotland.

The Group has just distributed a newsletter introducing two new signs. These go further in trying to restrict access than anything the Cairngorm NPA had suggested to their Local Access Forum:

The first version of the CNPA messaging had asked people to keep their dog “on a lead or close to heel”, whereas the Carrbridge Group message says dogs should be on a lead.

Nick Kempe asked: “One wonders if the gamekeeper employed by the Cairngorm Capercaillie Group will be asked to keep any dogs they use on a lead throughout the area?  If not, that tells you this sign is discriminatory.

“Note too its tone: instead of a request, it’s THANK YOU; instead of asking people to help, it’s capercaillie ‘must not be disturbed’.

“All of this is causing a great deal of concern to local people who do have well-trained dogs used to walking off the lead.

“It raises questions about what right does the Carrbridge Capercaillie Group, who I am sure are well meaning, have to put up signs telling others what to do?”

“The evidence the Group cite for the need for this signage, as cited in the recent newsletter,  raises further questions, according to Parkswatch:

“While there have been instances of capercaillie being killed by dogs (see here) and increasing concerns expressed about this (see here), perception is not the same as fact.

“The section on the the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project about the causes of the bird’s decline (see here) does not even mention dogs:

“Capercaillie numbers have fallen for lots of reasons including lack of habitat, low productivity, predation, collisions with unmarked deer fences and human disturbance.”

“But maybe dogs are included in human disturbance?  Transparent and clear evidence should underpin all attempts to promote messages that modify what is said in the SOAC.”

Nick Kempe, in the Parkswatch newsletter, then states: “The Group have then chosen to quote two sentences in their newsletter from people who responded to their questionnaire in 2019, which thought there was a need for a ‘deterrent’ and  that disturbing capercaillie should be treated as a wildlife crime.  This is reflected in  Sign 2, which is apparently intended for use off-path for birdwatchers “heading deep into capercaillie territory“:

“At least the sign gets the law right: the offence is to ‘intentionally or recklessly’ disturb protected birds like the capercaillie. The wording, described as ‘targeted and firm’, is designed to deter, rather than help.

“It appears the Carrbridge Group and the police want birdwatchers (or local people going for a walk in the woods)  to think they could be committing a wildlife crime just by walking past the sign.

“Just who will be around to report such persons if the signs, as claimed, are deep in the forest and won’t be seen by most people is not clear.  Perhaps this explains why the newsletter states it’s a trial sign and “If it doesn’t have the desired effect, it’s back to the drawing board”?

“In my view the sign won’t work. If the issue is there are now too many birdwatchers coming to the Carrbridge area to spot a capercaillie, and in doing so they are disturbing them, it’s far to late to tell them this when they are “deep” in the woods.

“Indeed the signs will tell the determined birder who wants to see a capercaillie at any cost that they have found exactly the right place!

“The sign goes a step further, and is much less helpful, than the advice aimed at birdwatchers which can be found on the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project website:

“While this advice is also restrictive – effectively its advising  people to keep to the path for almost five months of the year – it does advise how people can see capercaillie without disturbing them.  That makes it helpful and more likely to be observed.”

What’s gone wrong?

The Carrbridge Capercaillie Conservation Strategy Action Plan Winter Spring 2021 (see here) committed  to a number of actions to ensure capercaillie survival in the area including:

  • Work with the community to identify areas to voluntarily avoid at sensitive times of year”;
  • “Work with professional guides, birders and photographers to identify solutions” ;and
  • “Work with professional dog walkers to identify solutions”.  

Nick Kempe states: “Somehow, in a few short months, the approach has shifted from voluntary to compulsory, from working with people to telling them and from professional dog walkers to all dog walkers. 

“There is no doubt that the capercaillie is in serious trouble.  The Carrbridge Action Plan reports just one chick was successfully reared in the whole of the Kinveachy Forest last year and one can understand why there is a strong desire to do something locally.

“What has happened though is a small group of people have been left to develop new messages in a short period of time.   Reading the notes of group meetings (see here),  the wording for the signage was developed in just two weeks.

“As someone who has spent months negotiating and deliberating wording for signage with landowners, I can tell you that was asking for trouble and they did not have the right interests attending their zoom meetings. Unfortunately, the Cairngorm NPA, as Access Authority, appears to have stood by and allowed this to happen and then endorsed  the wording on the signs without due process, such as asking the LAF to consider them.

“Part of the problem may have been that a former Access Officer for the CNPA now works for the Capercaillie Project and is on the Carrbridge Group.  Perhaps the CNPA Access Team did not want to challenge a former colleague?

“The bigger issue in my view is the absence of a strategic approach to considering potential human impacts on capercaillie.   The CNPA has known the capercaillie have been in serious trouble for years and are now more or less confined to the Speyside part of the National Park.  So why just develop signs for this village and this wood and leave responsibility to a local group for doing so?

“If the evidence now suggests that dogs may be the factor driving capercaillie over the brink, surely there need to signs informing dog walkers of the facts and asking them to play their part in saving the capercaillie in every area of the National Park where capercaillie are found?

“And if the evidence shows birdwatchers now play a role in capercaillie deaths that was formerly attributed to fences and predators, surely that applies in all the capercaillie areas on Speyside?   So why has the CNPA not led on developing signage and broader messaging for protecting the capercaillie across Speyside, that has involved and won support from all the relevant parties, is based on the principles of the The Scottish Outdoor Access Code and is based on evidence of what might actually work?

“One can understand why there is a feeling among some residents of Carrbridge that their access rights risk being sacrificed because of all the people that have attracted into the area wanting to see a capercaillie by tourism marketing.”

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