THE PINE MARTEN V CAPERCAILLIE QUESTION

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There’s been a lot of talk recently in the media about conflict arising from these two precious creatures coexisting, with the pine marten often being portrayed by the farming and gamekeeping community as a ferocious beast that’s wiping out the world’s largest grouse species, with subsequent calls for the culling or mass relocation of the marten.  Organisations such as the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust are at the forefront of these calls to remove pine marten to protect the capercaillie, but from my point of view, this is merely a smokescreen.  After all, this is an organisation funded by landowners, farmers and the game-shooting community, so let’s just say they have a vested interest in any legislation that would also exist to protect their lucrative grouse shooting stocks.

Now I’m not disputing that this enigmatic bird is not endangered, but I dispute the reasons being held up as the main drivers of its decline.  Let’s not forget that the bird was hunted legally as recently as 2001, before becoming a protected species.  Conversely, Scotland’s pine marten populations are just in the process of recovering after decades of persecution.  It doesn’t seem morally right to potentially remove a native species, or exterminate it, just to protect another based on very questionable evidence.  The majority of studies which looked at the relationship between the pine marten and capercaillie found no solid evidence that the mustelid was having a detrimental effect on the bird’s breeding rates.

They do eat capercaillie eggs, but as true omnivores, this makes up a very small portion of their diet.  What research did find was an apparent correlation between changeable climate patterns and a reduction in reproduction rates in capercaillie.  They are also very sensitive to habitat loss- much of which has now been destroyed.  It’s no surprise that encounters between them are increasing, given that we’ve reduced the habitat for both to a tiny area.

Elements of the conservation community are also calling for action to be taken against the pine marten, but this is another example of the knee-jerk, one-dimensional and frankly out-dated strategy adopted nowadays in a misguided attempt to save a species without looking at the bigger picture and taking a more multi-faceted approach.  Many of our conservation practices have become too interventionist, to the detriment of ecosystem health and bio-diversity.  I think more focus and energy needs to be put in to increasing capercaillie reproduction rates and optimising their habitat, before pine martens are relocated.  As for a cull, that must only be used as a last resort.

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Gordon Eaglesham

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