CAPERCAILLIE: DEER FENCING PROJECT AIMS TO SAVE RARE BIRDS IN CAIRNGORMS NATIONAL PARK

By Nick Kempe of Parkswatch Scotland

It has been known for some time (see here) that significant numbers of capercaillie, black grouse and red grouse die in collisions with fences each year, with some studies suggesting up to 1/3 of capercaillie die in this way.

These rare birds, whose name translates from the Gaelic to ‘horse of the woods’ used to be a familiar sight on some islands on Loch Lomond, but are now facing extincion after having moved north.

While the focus in Scotland has generally been on deer fencing as the culprit, all fencing kills birds, a fact that seems to have been missed by the Cairngorms National Park Authority Planning Committee when they approved a new stock fence around the Coire na Ciste car park to deter people from walking down into the Glenmore Forest (see here).

Committee members asked about the height of the fence but not whether it would be marked. Research has also shown that marking fences (see here) to make them more visible to grouse species reduces mortality by 60%.

Given the plight of the capercaillie, which used to be found on the islands of Loch Lomond, is once again heading towards extinction in Scotland, one might have thought the single most important step that could be taken to save them would be to remove fencing in the areas where they remain.

The Cairngorms Capercaillie project has produced a very useful map showing fences in capercaillie areas (see here).  The  amount of fencing on Speyside, the last remaining stronghold for the species, is remarkable:

The map is far from complete, with miles of fencing on the Balavil and Pitmain estates, east and west of Kingussie, not shown. If, by chance, capercaillie did try to colonise the woodland there they would be likely to be decimated.

The position of the Forestry Commission, as it then was, back in 2012 was that “theconstruction of new fencing to protect woodland and trees in habitats supporting these two grouse speciesshould be minimised, and the fences removes as soon as management objectives have been achieved”.

The only reason deer fencing is required is because high deer numbers prevent natural regeneration of woodland.  As has been shown on the Glen Feshie estate, ifthe management objective was to keep deer numbers at c2 per square kilometre, fences could be removed completely and woodland would regenerate naturally.  The problem is some landowners want to retain high deer numbers while also keeping the Cairngorms National Park Authority happy by expanding the extent of native woodland.  The inevitable consequence is deer fencing.

I first became aware of the extent of the fence-marking at Kinveachy on a walk three and a half years ago.  The orange plastic netting is not just a blot on the landscape, it tears in the wind leaving little bits of plastic all over the countryside.  The first orange netting used was not resistant to ultra violet light and degraded very quickly. Netting now is UV resistant and guaranteed for eight years, not a long time.  Scandalously, the Scottish Government is still providing grants to put up this plastic netting through the rural payments scheme (see here), despite worldwide concern about the amount of plastic entering the natural environment.

Part of the problem is plastic is the cheapest option, which may be why the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project gets volunteers to put wooden droppers up on deer fences within the area, saving landowners a bob or two in labour.

Fences, which are a danger to life of capercaillie, going up in the Cairngorms National Park. Pictures by Nick Kempe and Parkswatch readers.

But if you look closely at the photo you can see the droppers are attached with plastic ties.  In fact plastic ties are being used extensively with a variety of different products used to make fencing more visible to capercaillie.

All these small bits of plastic which will inevitably enter the natural environment. Surely we should be doing better in a National Park?  One wonders how long it will be till capercaillie and black grouse start dying because they have ingested plastic?

Besides cost, the other main variable which has determined what type of fencing marking is used is the wind.  Plastic netting catches the wind most and can only be used in relatively sheltered locations.  Lengths of bamboo catch the wind least and are lighter than full wooden battens but the fence may still need to be reinforced as above.
While Seafield Estates does describe the work it is trying to do to extend the Caledonian Pinewood (and I sympathise with the problem of how to prevent high numbers of deer in the Dulnain catchment preventing woodland regeneration), why plastic is still being used to mark fences is not explained:

The failure to tackle overgrazing by red deer in the Cairngorms National Park has resulted in a raft  of conservation projects that have had damaging consequences for the natural environment.  Both the pearl mussel project, which made extensive use of tree tubes (see here), and the marking of fencing to reduce capercaillie deaths, has introduced significant quantities of plastic into the natural environment.  This is contrary to the statutory conservation objectives of the Cairngorms National Park.  However, as far as I am aware, the Cairngorms National Park Authority has never questioned what is going on or why the Scottish Government continues to fund such damaging practices. It is time that changed and it acted.

Far better than using wooden droppers though, and the most likely way to save the capercaillie, would be to remove ALL deer fencing in the Speyside area.  That would reduce deaths by fence strike still further.  What is more the Scottish Government, through the Rural Payments Scheme, provides grants for the removal of fencing (see here) and for reducing the height of deer fence to stock fence height (see here).

The problem is there are no grants for estates like Seafield, which are trying to expand tree cover, to shoot deer that come in from neighbouring estates attracted by all the tree-food.  With Fergus Ewing, who favoured the large traditional landowners, no long in charge of rural affairs, perhaps there is an opportunity for the CNPA to persuade the new Cabinet Secretary, Mairi Gougeon, to change Scottish Government policy?  While they are it, they could also ask her to let them ban use of plastic in the National Park prior to a national ban coming into effect.

Red deer in the national parks – fencing is killing rare birds. Picture by Lorraine Herbison

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