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Demise of a 'horse of the forest'

The ‘Beast from the East’ has been and gone. It brought plenty of snow to the Cairngorm mountains and winter sports enthusiasts quickly followed. Away from the hills, in our forests another adrenaline-packed sport is fast gaining popularity, mountain biking. This leisure pursuit is not limited by snow and takes place in all weathers. It can be great fun, even exhilarating and a fantastic way to let off steam and keep fit, if you are so inclined. I have no problem with mountain biking when exercised with respect for the environment, other peoples’ enjoyment and with sensitivity for wildlife, especially in a National Park that ought to afford safeguard to the natural ecosystem and recreational enjoyment for all. Like so many visitors to the Cairngorms National Park, I too seek quiet enjoyment while walking through our last vestiges of ancient Caledonian Pine Forest doing a spot of birdwatching.

More recently during my birdwatching walks I find that I am increasingly encountering more and more mountain bikers, organised groups of all ages and individuals, tearing through these ancient pine forests on an adrenaline rush. The adrenaline-junky today is not content with riding the forests’ logging trails, some are being encouraged to ride deeper into the forest, along old deer paths, as indicated by small innocuous-looking fluorescent flags that are beginning to appear on the edge of some tracks. This I do find very disturbing and what is more bothering, these activities are not confined to daylight hours!

Less than 1% of the former Great Caledonian Forest remains today, albeit very fragmented and widespread. Nevertheless, it still represents an important habitat for one of our most enigmatic and rarest pine wood birds, the impressive capercaillie (Scottish Gaelic – capull coille, literally ‘horse of the forest’ in reference to its relatively large size). At this time of the year the males are beginning to gather at traditional ‘lek’ sites; areas within the forest where they perform a spring courtship ritual. Their distinctive champagne popping and guttural croaking vocalisations attract females for mating. These gatherings are very susceptible to disturbance; it is thought increased disturbance from expanding forestry operations caused the birds’ extinction in 1785. They were, however successfully reintroduced to our pinewoods, from Swedish stock, in 1837/38 and the population steadily increased. Demands placed on the timber industry during the two world wars meant greater disturbance from forestry operations. Such activities fuelled a drastic decline in the capercaillie’s fortunes and this fragile population is once more on the brink of extinction. Today, the capercaillie population remains at a critically low level, despite herculean efforts by conservation organisations to stabilise and ideally increase their productivity. Research tells us that capercaillie are vulnerable to a number of environmental factors, not least disturbance, and according to the latest survey figures only 1114 individuals remain and these are scattered far and wide throughout Scotland’s fragmented ancient pine forests.

So, in tandem with habitat management, minimising disturbance is of paramount importance to the survival of this endangered species. We should all be mindful of inappropriate recreational activities in more sensitive areas of the forests, such as day and night mountain biking that may cause undue stress and anxiety to a small, though no less important, population of capercaillie. This is only my personal opinion, others may argue differently and often do, citing the recent increase in pine marten populations as the underlying problem; allegedly predating on capercaillie eggs and young. I do not subscribe to this theory, since capercaillie numbers were in free-fall long before the increase in pine marten populations. However, I do have serious reservations that some pine martens are becoming more receptive to ‘condition feeding’ that may cause them to target capercaillie. Which brings me onto another problem I often encounter in the forests, wildlife photography.

On the back of a welcomed increase in pine marten populations there is an apparent upsurge in photographic hides and trail cameras dotted throughout the ancient pine forest, each focused on capturing images of these, now not so scarce and beautiful animals. While I have no axe to grind with wildlife photography in general, I do have some reservations when ‘commercial needs’ or ‘selfish interests’ (getting a marten in front of the hide/camera) overrides the welfare of, and potentially impacts on, more vulnerable forest species that often leading to a conflict of interests. The provision of hens’ eggs to lure pine martens in front of hides/cameras is by another name ‘condition feeding’, were you deliberately encourage a species to develop a taste for a particular bait. This is currently happening all too frequently in highly sensitive ‘capercaillie’ pine forests and its ramifications have potential impact on a rare bird of conservation concern that also lays its eggs on the forest floor. Pine martens are quick to learn, they have to as part of their survival strategy, and the placement of hens’ eggs on the forest floor is, perhaps counteractive to the aims of capercaillie conservation and in my humble opinion is ethically wrong.

The peace, tranquillity and diversity of our ancient pine forests may be at risk of being stealthily eroded by the inappropriate exploitation of a natural resource, causing a major impact on its special wildlife interest. Outside of these ‘limited’, highly sensitive areas the Highland forest network is on a vast scale, there should be scope to accommodate the multifaceted leisure industry without too much imagination. To achieve this, however will take a great deal of cooperation and goodwill on all parties and here lies the real problem.

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