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Capercaillie and pine marten can live together without Scottish gamekeepers says PETER FROST  

If you are lucky enough to live within easy reach of the Scottish pine forest you have some remarkable wildlife to enjoy.

Two of Britain’s rarest and most handsome creatures make their home here among the Scots pine. They are the capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) and the pine marten (Martes martes).

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Now Scottish Gamekeepers are using one as an excuse to kill the other.

I’ve looked at the behavior of gamekeepers before in my Ramblings. I’ve reported on their illegal acts to kill birds of prey to protect shoots for the
benefit of the few tweeded toffs who get their pleasure blasting birds out of the sky and paying thousands of pounds for the privilege.

Gamekeepers still dream of the old days when they could legally shoot anything they considered a pest from eagles to ospreys. From bitterns to bolshie ramblers. However rare and wonderful the species gamekeepers would trap, poison or just blast them out of the sky.

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Today Scottish gamekeepers have got a new target for their bloodlust; the pine marten. As well as bumping them off illegally they are campaigning to get Scottish law changed so they can attack one of our rarest and most threatened mammals without fear of retribution.

The pine marten has been protected since 1981. The size of small cat, martens are relatives of stoats and ferrets. They feed on a wide variety of food including small rodents, birds, invertebrates, fruit and even the occasional capercaillie chick.

The pine marten has a very restricted distribution in Britain due both to deforestation and shooting as a pest by gamekeepers and farmers.

In the early 1900s the species survived mainly in the remote, mountainous north-west Highlands of Scotland but has now started to spread again. Welcome if rare sightings in England and Wales have been confirmed.

The pine marten is an attractive, rare and iconic sight to anyone lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it on a walk in the Scottish countryside.

The capercaillie (below) is a huge species of black grouse whose only natural home in Britain is in the Scottish Highlands.

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Known in Gaelic mythology as the ‘soul of the forest’, this, the world’s largest grouse, is famous for its spring leks, the battle between male birds for hens. The males make deep noises while spreading their tails in the shape of a fan.

The last native capercaillie was shot in about 1770. Overhunting and loss of woodland habitat drove it to extinction.

The species was reintroduced from Sweden in 1837 and did well till the 1970s when the population began to decline markedly. Shooting was made illegal in 1981.

Now the capercaillie is in danger of extinction for a second time.  Disturbance by careless walkers and the predation of chicks by foxes and crows all take their toll.

The two animals, the pine marten and the capercaillie have coexisted for thousands of years in Britain. They still do in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe.

There is no doubt that both animals are threatened.  The threat to the capercaillie comes from many sources among them illegal shooting by unscrupulous so-called sportsmen as well as poor habitat and wetter springs and summers.

The gamekeeper’s own deer fences also take a high toll of the birds.

So why are Scottish Gamekeepers demanding the right to kill pine martens to protect capercaillie?

Could it be just a clever ruse to get rid of what they perceive as a threat to their commercial grouse, partridge and pheasant shoots? That preserving the capercaillie is just a convenient excuse?

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The Mammal Society’s chief executive, Marina Pacheco told us: “The capercaillie’s decline is a cause for concern, but many factors are implicated.

“There are forests in North-east Scotland where capercaillie have increased in numbers in response to improved woodland management despite the long-term presence of pine martens.

“This is good evidence that pine marten predation is not factor in the capercaillie’s decline.

Even the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) who you think would be on the side of the capercaillie don’t agree with the gamekeepers.

RSPB Scotland told us the Scottish Gamekeepers Association’s position is “riddled with basic inaccuracies and sheer prejudice”.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star 2013

Since this article was published there have been a number of reports that in areas where the pine marten is gaining a foothold significant reductions in populations of the invasive grey squirrel have been recorded.

The grey squirrel is a real pest and a threat to both our ancient woodland and our threatened native red squirrel. The pine marten much prefers to hunt and eat the larger meatier greys and the smaller red squirrels make a comeback. Once again as nature puts right our human mistakes a better balance occurs naturally.

Grey-Squirrel

The grey squirrel has a lot more meat than the smaller native red so is a more attractive prey for the pine marten.

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