HL Deb 28 April 1999 vol 600 cc410-30

9.43 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will take steps to prevent the imminent extinction of the capercaillie in the United Kingdom by the creation of special protected areas under Article 4 of the Birds Directive (79/409/EEC), and by seeking its re-scheduling as a Schedule 1 Part II species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and by other measures of special protection.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, perhaps I may correct my failure and congratulate the noble Lord who responded to the previous Motion on his accession to the Front Bench. Perhaps I may say what a pleasure it is to have the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, replying to an Unstarred Question for the first time from the Front Bench.

As your Lordships will know, this is the season when the male capercaillie is most active in its breeding displays on the leks. For many years, Mr. Jimmy Oswald, who is well known to some of your Lordships in the House tonight, has kept a count in Glen Tanar, one of the few remaining habitats on Deeside, which is already designated a special protection area. He tells me that last year he counted 170 birds, but this year, despite trampling the whole of the estate for a period in excess of a fortnight, he has counted only 14.

That indicates an accelerating trend which is perhaps worse than the most pessimistic forecasts. It was believed that there were approximately 2,200 birds left in Scotland a year or two ago, compared with the 20,000-odd in the 1960s and 1970s. But even these estimates predicted a drop in the number of females from 1,467 in 1994 to 206 in 2003. Therefore, those pessimistic forecasts from the past are today, some four years in advance, being met in a count on the ground.

I am sure that your Lordships will agree that the capercaillie is a magnificent bird. I was amused to be advised today by my noble friend Lord Avebury that the word comes from the ancient Gaelic, capull coille, and that customarily in the 15th and 16th centuries it was spelt with a Z. I was not aware of that. It is an expression which means "the horse of the wood". It is a bird which was described in champagne terms by Mr. Duff Hart-Davies as the "jeroboam" of British birds. That appeared in the Independent a week ago.

As your Lordships will know, a cock bird can weigh up to eight or nine pounds and stand more than two feet tall, with the most magnificent colours: slate grey, a black beard of feathers on the throat, a brilliant red patch of skin above the eye and a glossy blue/green mottled white breast. It has feathered legs and in display it puffs out a black fantail, mottled with white. The female is more elegantly subdued with buff, black and greyish-white plumage and a reddish breast. Its diet is blaeberries, pine needles and conifer shoots. Although it is of turkey size, I am told that it is not much to eat. Indeed, a ghillie on the Glen Tanar estate told me that as a boy his mother would stuff a capercaillie, when one had been shot, with potatoes in order to take away the pine flavour. She would make sure to throw the potatoes away, but even so he was not a fan of what he ate because the taste was something resembling an air freshener!

I understand that the capercaillie is fierce when roused. My noble friend Lady Linklater tells me that there was a caper living near the woods near her home when she was young and newly married. It was familiarly called "Stanley", which is a very appropriate name. It would puff up its throat feathers, fan out its tail and chase her away. That brings a rather pleasant picture into the mind. On one occasion, it knocked down her nine year-old son!

As your Lordships are aware, its habitat is wide in Scotland, through Aberdeenshire, Kincardine, Moray, Inverness and West Perthshire. So far, five special protection areas have been designated at Abernethy, the Cairngorms, Glen Tanar, Ballochbuie and Loch Lomond. There is another proposed and in the pipeline.

What are the causes of the decline which have so disastrously hit this glorious bird? The Institute for Terrestrial Ecology at Banchory and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds at Edinburgh agree that the cause of the decline is poor breeding. There are a number of reasons for that. The first is the reduction in and disturbance of habitat. It is curious that eager birdwatchers at lekking displays, or walkers stumbling upon lekking displays, can cause as much disruption to the cycle as anything else. It is fortunate that previous reductions of habitat have been checked and restored, but I have been told by Mr. Nigel Buxton of Scottish Natural Heritage that despite the restoration of habitat, the rapid decline has not ceased.

But perhaps the worst cause of the deaths of capercaillie is deer fence collisions. Mr. Bob Moss of the Institute for Terrestrial Ecology is of the view that flying into fences is the main single cause of deaths among young and full-grown capercaillie, particularly in spring, when females home in on the males on the leks and are caught in the unseen fence. Mr. Moss considers that if fence deaths had been halved, the decline would not have occurred, despite the poor breeding which is the fundamental cause of the birds' imminent extinction.

A study documented by the RSPB at Abernethy and Glen Tanar found no fewer than four dead capercaillie per kilometre of fence per month; the highest death rate being between September and November, when the capercaillie disperse. Thirty two per cent of capers that had been radio-tagged were found to have been killed by fence collisions. In 93 per cent of the cases documented in the studies, caper collisions with deer fences were fatal.

Deer fences are important in considering the decline of the capercaillie, but there is also over-grazing by deer and sheep, and the suppressing of growth of the blaeberry plants needed by the birds for food and shelter. In addition, pollution and climate change have undoubtedly had an effect on insect life in Scotland, as those of us who know the area are only too well aware. Moreover, chicks which hatch in the late spring, when there is insufficient food to support them, will not survive.

Fox snares are a further cause of decline when set in capercaillie leks, although perfectly legally set by keepers. It is said that one Deeside keeper has inadvertently snared five cocks in leks in the past two years. Therefore, it is important that the snaring of foxes be carefully controlled and carefully carried out.

I have outlined the problem, but what can be done about it? Some of your Lordships may feel that conservation is harmful to the preservation of the deer, but that is not the view that I take. It is true that the loss of areas of native Caledonian pine has been reversed, due to the enlightened activities of Forest Enterprise and environmental charities. Private landowners have been actively and enthusiastically engaged. Tribute must be paid to the landowners for the concern and care they have taken over the years to maintain the capercaillie birds.

It is essential that redundant deer fences be removed. There are many ways of controlling deer, but building deer fences and maintaining them after the trees they are supposed to protect have grown to a sufficient height is a way of ensuring that the capercaillie birds are wiped out. A policy of forest restoration in the Abernethy Forest, for example—a forest owned by the RSPB—involving removal of all the fences, has seen a net increase in the population. That is a positive indication of the way in which things can change.

There is an obligation under Article 8 of the birds directive, which prohibits, all means, arrangements or methods … capable of causing the local disappearance of a species".

Under that directive, redundant deer fences, or existing deer fences, could be made less fatal to the capercaillie by their replacement with plastic, wooden or electric fences, or by their clear marking so that the birds can see them easily as they fly in. Your Lordships should note that woodland improvement grants are available from the Forestry Authority for woodland biodiversity enhancement.

The deer management groups, which play an important role in Scotland and with which landowners are involved, are those to whom people concerned about the capercaillie should turn for discussion and for the working out of appropriate plans to preserve the bird. Throughout Scotland, landowners have imposed a voluntary ban on shooting. My Unstarred Question neither proposes nor implies that the capercaillie should cease to be a game bird. That is because the co-operation of landowners is vital to its success.

Annex IV of the birds directive also means that the killing of capercaillie by snares set for foxes is prohibited. So those who set those snares must take appropriate care.

But the RSPB and others believe that the number of special protected areas should be at least doubled. There are capercaillie on some 20 to 30 estates. The ITE study in 1994 covered 14 of those estates, so there are many more than the five existing SPAs and the one which is proposed. Scottish National Heritage is charged with identifying suitable territories. It makes the scientific case; it carries out the consultations; and the Minister instructs the SNH to classify the site so that the details can be forwarded to Europe. It is crucially important that further special protected areas are designated in those areas where the capercaillie still exists in numbers.

My Question asks also for the transfer of the capercaillie to Schedule 1, Part II of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. That would result in the bird becoming specially protected during the vulnerable lekking and breeding season so that criminal offences would be committed by those who sought to take eggs or birds, whether live or dead.

Finally, I ask the Government to give the fullest support to the capercaillie core group, under the chairmanship of Mr. Steve Sankey of the RSPB, which is doing its utmost to publicise the problems and to work out practical solutions.

Today is almost too late. The capercaillie is nearly gone. It may be said that, effectively, it has gone. We do not ask for further committee meetings, assemblies or discussions to take place at some future time. We are asking for action which will protect a species which decorates and enhances the Caledonian forest, itself a living remnant from the long-gone Ice Age. The capercaillie depends upon an environment which is healthy and free at least from man-made hazards. It is in itself a reminder of the strength of the past and, at the same time, of the fragility of the Scottish landscape. We cannot afford to lose a single part of the intricate machine which makes up the diverse and beautiful country that is Scotland.

9.58 p.m.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, as a Scot, I must extend special thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, not only for raising this matter but also for, as a Welshman, giving us such a definitive and authoritative account of the circumstances surrounding the capercaillie in Scotland at present.

I should also declare an interest as chairman of the RSPB in Scotland. Indeed, it is the RSPB which has been tasked by government, along with the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, to lead and co-ordinate the conservation actions required, it is hoped, to save the capercail lie.

Those conservation actions are set out in a specific biodiversity action plan. The steering group for the species action plan has also been set up. It includes, from the public sector, the Forestry Commission, Forest Enterprise, SNH (Scottish Natural Heritage). In addition there is the Game Conservancy Trust, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and the Scottish Landowners' Federation. It is also joined by an eminent capercaillie scientist in the person of Dr. Robert Moss. All these agencies and organisations must act together in a co-ordinated way if there is to be any hope of a comeback for the capercaillie.

The RSPB accords the highest possible conservation status to the capercaillie, which, as the noble Lord well described, is now on the brink of its second extinction in Scotland. The present population was originally released in Perthshire from Sweden in the 1830s. As the statistics given to the House by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, indicate, that population has crashed from an estimated 20,000 in the 1970s to what is predicted to be a mere 1,000 birds today. In addition, its range is calculated to have dropped by some 63 per cent between 1968 and 1991. The population modelling carried out by the RSPB scientists and others further predicts that only 200 capercaillies will remain in the year 2002 if the present rate of decline continues.

It is quite clear that this species is in the gravest danger. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, described, its decline is principally due to poor breeding productivity but that, in turn, is caused by a whole series of inter-related factors. Habitat loss and habitat fragmentation have been compounded by a deterioration in the quality of that habitat which still remains. The breeding productivity of the capercaillie needs to be around 0.9 chicks per hen in order to sustain the capercaillie population in Scotland. Yet in recent years that productivity rate has plummeted to 0.2 chicks per hen or even less. Clearly, this is not sustainable and there is little hope that the population will not become extinct unless that productivity can be improved. As we have heard, the poor spring weather in the past couple of years has only added to the difficulties.

One of the principal problems, well described by the noble Lord, is the serious problem posed for capercaillies by deer fences within those forests still inhabited by the capercaillie. Scientists estimate that one-third of all adult capercaillies are killed each year by flying into those fences. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, gave us some stark and startling facts. It is quite obvious that urgent action is needed to rectify that situation, especially in those areas of Scotland which can still be regarded as being core sites for the capercaillie.

In addition, the capercaillie chicks depend heavily on blaeberry. They do so for two reasons: first, because blaeberry provides a high-energy protein for growth in the form of caterpillars. Secondly, and of importance, is the fact that blaeberry provides very useful cover for the capercaillie to hide from predators, which can be a threat. In most forests still inhabited by capercaillie, deer grazing has reduced the quality and quantity of this vital understorey. It is therefore essential that the Deer Commission for Scotland, helped by SNH, identifies the important remaining forests with capercaillie and ensures that effective deer management to allow the vegetation to recover is carried out across those sites. If I remember correctly, I believe it has a duty to do so under Section 1(2) of the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996—legislation which this House will remember well. It should work closely with landowners and deer management groups to ensure that this better management occurs.

As described by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, some of the problems for the capercaillie are not without irony. In recent years, as they have become rarer, they have become more vulnerable to disturbance by birdwatchers and others. This has proved a serious problem in areas such as Strathspey. This disturbance must be avoided at all costs in view of the perilous situation of the population. Adding them, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, suggests, to Schedule 1, Part II of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1991 is a proposal that the RSPB would endorse. This would give them the added protection through the threat of special penalties under law if they are disturbed during the close season, their breeding season.

What else can be done? Additional funding should, I believe, be provided to landowners and forest managers in order to remove fences, to manage deer better and to create other habitat features used by the capercaillie, such as pools and wet areas within forests. These areas are important for the proper management of invertebrate populations and therefore for the food that the capercaillie chicks need. All remaining capercaillie sites should be eligible for such funding. An increase in funds to improve biodiversity for the public good could be facilitated by Article 32 of the new Agenda 2000 Rural Development Regulation. It could be administered by the Forestry Commission. It is important that the new forestry strategy for Scotland should contain such actions to save one of our most magnificent forest species from extinction.

Rural support funds such as these, and others such as the woodland grant schemes, should be targeted towards biodiversity priorities in this way. Forest managers with capercaillie in special protection areas, special areas of conservation and SSSIs should be given the greatest possible assistance in managing the national assets for the public good.

The question put to the Government by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, asks whether they will take steps to prevent the imminent extinction of the capercaillie in the United Kingdom. Anticipating the Minister's answer perhaps, I expect him to say that he will take steps and indeed is taking them to do just that. Indeed, from the public sector agencies involved in the Species Action Fund and the steering group, undoubtedly assistance is coming forward from Government. However, the question that therefore arises, which I would like to put to the Minister tonight, is this: will he make a commitment that the Government will take further steps if the sum of the current effort proves to be insufficient? I very much hope that the answer will be yes. I have a sneaking feeling that the answer may be that this is a question which is up to the Scottish Parliament to answer. To an extent, regarding the allocation of front-line effort and front-line resources, he may well be right. However, if he kicks the question into touch like that I believe he is wrong.

Ultimately we have an international obligation under European law to do everything we can to ensure the survival of the capercaillie. If we fail in that obligation it is not the Scottish executive who will stand accused of breaching European obligations; it will be the United Kingdom Government who will have to face that charge. It is the DETR and the United Kingdom Government in London who will have the infraction proceedings lodged against them. It is in London where the fines will be imposed if we are deemed to be in continuing breach of a European obligation. So, in answering the Question tonight as to whether or not the Minister can give a commitment that the Government will take further steps if the sum of the current effort proves to be insufficient, I hope he will bear in mind that simply saying that this is up to the Scottish Parliament is not good enough.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, can he tell the House what effect he and the RSPB feel that the proposed right-to-roam legislation will have on the future of the capercaillie?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I express a sentiment which has been expressed many times in this House rather better than I will express it tonight; that is, if the proposed right-to-roam legislation is not accompanied by responsibilities to be exercised by those utilising that right to roam, and if the resourcing by government in terms of the management that would be required for a more general right to roam is not forthcoming, then it will further add to the problems from which the capercaillie are already suffering.

10.10 p.m.

Lord Kimball

My Lords, a lot of things happened in 1745 in Scotland, but among others, that was the date when the last recorded capercaillie was seen in Strath Spey. It was last recorded in Sutherland in 1769. The Reverend Mr. Morris, writing in his British Birds in 1857, commented on the reintroduction—mentioned by my noble friend Lord Lindsay—of the 54 adult birds that were brought into this country in 1838. He wrote that the native branch of the family was extinct, but the reintroduction of the collateral branch which holds sway in other lands allowed the bird to be renaturalised here.

So we have had a major problem with the capercaillie in the past, to the extent that it was actually extinct. I believe that the breeding success of the capercaillie and its close relative the black grouse, are directly related to predation by the worst mammalian predator which is now exploding all over Scotland; I mean the pine marten. All ground-nesting birds are at risk from foxes, but we can control them and feral cats—we have a particular problem with the protected wild cat. But the success of the 1838 reintroduction was at a time when the pine marten was virtually exterminated and driven back to its last remaining haunts on the west coast of Scotland in the deer forest, from which it has unfortunately recolonised much of Scotland.

The caper that were introduced in 1838 spread in a large way by interbreeding with the thriving population of black grouse. We all know that the black grouse and the capercaillie will cross, and there is very little difference between the caper hen and the greyhen. It was significant that Mr. St. John, in his Tour of the Highlands, mentions the extermination of the pine marten in 1870. If we were to follow that up by looking in Mr. Thorburn's book on British mammals, he actually gives the caper and the black grouse as the main species to suffer from the pine marten. He goes on to comment in his chapter on the pine marten, The most favoured place for a pine marten to rear its young is in the old nest of a greyhen or caper". So the incrimination of the pine marten is well recorded and well known. It is no good increasing protection for the caper without using the powers that the Government have to allow the eradication once again of the pine marten in the areas where we want the caper to do well. The growth of the pine marten is exploding all over Scotland. I have seen one in the daytime and run over one in the evening. They are quite easily controlled. They are a very bold member of the weasel family and the largest, and only they and the polecat in that family are protected.

Another point your Lordships should consider is that we must take more note of the work that is being done on black grouse research, which is now being carried on in Langden Beck. It is interesting that shooting of grey and caper hens in certain circumstances is a necessary tool of management. I do not know if it has been proven, but the old caper hen has the same problem as the old greyhen.

I remember a famous old head keeper telling me, over a period of 40 years, that we must shoot the old greyhens to have a thriving black grouse population, which we certainly had for 40 years. The old greyhen, and I suspect the caper hen, becomes infertile and pushes the fertile hen off the nest. Then that particular old lady does not have the patience or inclination to hatch the eggs. The old grey hen is certainly vermin and I suspect that a finger of suspicion must point at the old caper hen.

I shall not add to what has already been said about the problem of the deer fences. We have this craze all over Scotland at present for putting up these awful chain -link fences everywhere in order to achieve natural regeneration. But, with that regeneration, one gets not only the natural regeneration of the pine but also an area of rank, long heather that makes it quite impossible to control the predators.

There will not be time tonight to deal with the whole problem of avian predation, but we will be making a great mistake if we do not realise that a rather weakly caper chick is a very easy prey for the exploding population of hen harriers. There are many other reasons involved, but I believe that we shall be making a grave mistake tonight if, among the reasons for the decline and the poor breeding of the capercaillie, we neglect the whole problem of both mammalian and avian predation.

10.15 p.m.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, it has been a pleasure to listen to the three previous speeches because all of them have been very constructive about how we might try to help encourage the number of capers that we have in the future. I need not rehearse the figures because the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, gave them most clearly, as indeed did my noble friend. Lord Lindsay. I was glad that there has been no pressure from previous speakers to say that a ban must be placed on shooting. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, rightly said, the estate owners who are fortunate enough to have capers are very restrictive and carefully ensure that the voluntary ban is in place so that the capers are given every chance to reproduce.

I know from signing the Birds Directive myself in 1979 in Berne, Switzerland—and, subsequently, when I took the Wildlife and Countryside Act through the House of Commons—how important it was that the capers should be included in the schedule. Of course, Part I of Schedule 2 allows them to be shot outside the close season. I am not sure that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, and others, are right in pressing for them to be rescheduled into Part II of Schedule 1. I am not really certain that that would give all that much more protection than is given to them at present, especially during the important period of nesting.

Rescheduling is an issue about which I have always been worried. I say that because often when a bird or a mammal is transferred from one schedule to another—and that does not happen very frequently—it remains there. Indeed, there is far too much inflexibility about these schedules. I remember Sir Arthur Duncan, when he was chairman of the Nature Conservancy, before it became the Nature Conservancy Council, saying, at the time when the Brent goose was taken off the quarry list and put on the protected list, that that would be done on the assurance that the Brent goose would go back on the quarry list when the numbers increased.

As we all know, the south and south-east of England is awash with Brent geese, but there is no success at all in restoring them to the quarry list. That would be a much more effective way of controlling their numbers than simply putting them on the protected list. There is the same problem in Islay with the barnacle and, to a lesser extent, the white-fronted goose; namely, that we do not have sufficient flexibility. If we carried on in Islay with the responsible culling of barnacle and shot about 600 to 800 a year as was done before they were on the protected list, we would not have the immediate problems there, where the numbers far exceed the amount of food available on the island. We must consider a more flexible approach in the future.

My noble friends on this side of the House have rightly highlighted habitat as one of the reasons why reproduction is so disappointing at present. I accept that over-grazing and the loss of the blaeberries is one of the reasons for that. For that reason, we should give some credit to the Red Deer Commission, now the Deer Commission. Under the chairmanship of Patrick Gordon Duff Pennington, that body caused the deer management groups to spring into action and to cull hinds in the winter. I believe we have not allowed sufficient time for the work of the past three or four years to achieve results in terms of improved habitat in the pine forests.

We need to keep encouraging these groups. We should give every assistance to the Deer Commission carry out a high cull each year. I have been to Abernethy, which is of course run by the RSPB, and Creag Meagaidh, which is run by SNH, where the deer fences have to a large extent been removed. The deer are severely culled in those places. That has resulted in a significant improvement in capercaillie numbers. We should thank the RSPB for setting a fine example in this regard, particularly at Abernethy.

As my noble friend Lord Lindsay said, we should encourage the Forestry Commission to become more involved in the woodland grants scheme and to remove deer fences, both those that are falling down and those which may be erected in the near future. There is no doubt that that is one of the leading causes of falling numbers of capercaillie. I believe that grants are available to do that under the challenge funds offered by the Cairngorm Partnership. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, will mention that when he replies to the debate. I should like to see greater help being made available in Perthshire and Easter Ross, as the majority of the money is now given to projects in Speyside and Deeside. I have visited the Institute for Terrestrial Ecology at Banchory and I know what an important part it is playing in trying to increase capercaillie reproduction.

My noble friend Lord Kimball raised the important matter of predators. Predators pose as great a threat to the survival of capercaillies as do loss of habitat and the threats posed by deer fences. I believe we have afforded far too much protection to the pine marten. That predator has caused serious problems in the Highlands. I was dead against it receiving protection at all, as it is a species that offers few advantages and many disadvantages. It brings death and destruction to nesting birds in Scotland. As my noble friend Lord Kimball said, we can control foxes through efficient keepering. We really must consider the issue of raptors, although I know that is anathema to the RSPB. However, they pose a major nuisance in Scotland and there is an enormous number of them. They cause great harm.

It would be wrong of me not to mention the Langholm experiment, particularly bearing in mind the title I hold. We have been talking about the dramatic loss of capers and their imminent extinction and how right the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, is to raise this subject. Once upon a time Langholm Moor was the finest grouse moor in Scotland with thousands upon thousands of grouse. It now has just a few hundred grouse. That represents as serious a drop in grouse numbers as in numbers of capercaillie in the areas we are discussing. The Game Conservancy, SNH and ITE produced a scientific report to suggest ways of restoring Langholm Moor. We have scientific proof of the drop in grouse numbers particularly as a result of hen harrier predation. Yet no one will take action in this regard. Everyone was agreed that if scientific evidence was produced of this drop in grouse numbers action should be taken to rectify the matter. We have the scientific proof but no one seems prepared to take action. The lead department, SNH, must say why it is doing nothing in this regard. It cannot just pretend there is a problem with the habitat. It is not just a matter of a problem with the habitat. Anyone who knows that part of the world—as I do—knows that hen harrier predation has had a disastrous effect on grouse numbers. Grouse and heather go together. If we were to have neither, think of the loss to the scenery and scenic beauty of Scotland, irrespective of the loss of the livelihoods of keepers who have been discharged from the Langholm Moors because there are no grouse to shoot there.

I agree with the point raised by my noble friend Lord Lindsay about the right to roam. From what we hear about the probabilities of the Scottish Parliament, the right to roam may prove to be a very much more serious issue in Scotland than it is likely to be in England and Wales. What more could one want to do than walk through lovely pine forests—I am thinking particularly of the ones in Deeside—but if large numbers of people are doing it at the time of the year when birds are nesting it will be a major setback for the caper. It is absolutely right that there should be exclusivity over breeding areas, perhaps through special protection areas. The more special protection areas there are, the more the caper will have peace and quiet during the nesting period. Anyone who brings in right to roam legislation in Scotland without giving this matter due consideration will be making certain that one of the most beautiful and wonderful birds in Scotland will disappear forever.

There has been a positive note in the debate that we must do something and not just sit back and wait for the capers to go. I shall be most disappointed if the ministerial response does not indicate that action will be taken this year. Current Ministers must have some influence over the future parliament in Scotland; there must be some relationship in carrying through urgent legislation. In the light of the figures given by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, which show that the situation could not be more serious, this matter must be given high priority. Something must happen this year.

10.26 p.m.

Lord Burton

My Lords, I have lived near capercaillie for most of my life and no one could have a keener desire to see their numbers built up once again. Alas, I fear that the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, will have the reverse effect of what he and I and everyone who has spoken tonight desire.

We have been told that caper died out in the 18th century and were reintroduced in 1837. Why did they die out? I do not know if it is now possible for our boffins to discover that. It may have been something to do with the environment or conditions of which there are historical records. That may provide the answer to the present situation. Once caper were reintroduced, they fairly rapidly spread until in many places there were surplus stocks which could be readily culled. What must be looked at, and can be looked at now, is the difference between 1837 and 1999. My noble friend Lord Munro gave a few answers. I agree with every word he said. I hope that those words will be listened to very carefully.

Caper were not liked by some of our foresters who felt that they damaged the Scots fir trees. The problem was over-exaggerated. One heard of woodsmen putting their feet on nests, which was quite unnecessary because caper preferred to sit on top of the old "granny" trees. Alas, there are very few of the granny trees left now—a lot have been cut down—and that is a part of the environment which has disappeared. Caper could sit on the top of these big trees and peck all around them without the risk of the top collapsing or breaking off because there was no main top to break. Caper did not like the commercial forests because they could not sit on the tops of fir trees, which have big, long shoots that would just break off. But they could damage the commercial forests until such time as the trees grew to above the head height of a cock caper sitting on the ground, which is perhaps three, four or five years of growth. One of my plantings was quite badly damaged by capercaillie where they had pecked off the leaders from the ground.

Capercaillie are particularly partial to blaeberries and that type of vegetation which grows on our hills, though protein such as insects is also vital for the young birds. The giant ant-heaps which used to be found in our mature Scots fir plantations were important to the diet of the young birds. They were a wonderful sporting bird and could fly faster than any of the other types of grouse. In those days, they were plentiful where the habitat was favourable.

There were plenty of deer fanciers in those days. At the end of the rides we used to tie a bunch of heather on the fences so that the capercaillie could see them. Nowadays, we have all this plastic material and so we could quite easily make fences visible to the birds. They fly into fences when frightened. If people are walking about: all over the place scaring them, they will try to look back to see what is there or where a noise comes from. That is when they fly into the fences. In Abernethy, a considerable amount of disturbance is caused not only by people who perhaps should not be there but also by what I again call boffins who wander around looking at the caper.

As a small boy—a long time ago—I remember being placed with.410 gun round the corner of a wood at the end of a line of guns and in one drive managing to get five cock caper which were trying to creep away from the main line of guns. Sadly, however, disaster struck in about 1960 and almost all our stock of these fine birds died out in one winter. At about that time, other bird numbers also crashed, particularly birds of the moorland—plover, curlew, snipe, grouse, and many others. I believe that the crash in salmon and trout numbers also originated in the early 1960s. It would perhaps be easy to attribute the decline in caper to some disease, as they are very prone to ailments like "blackhead", but the loss of other species and fish leads one to believe that the cause was probably something else, possibly acid rain.

In spite of shooting, caper numbers rose steadily following their reintroduction and after the crash land owners ceased shooting them altogether. I know of no Scottish estate now which does not give strict protection to these birds. While I was deer stalking a few years ago, six giant cocks flew across a clearing, one behind the other. The stalker said to me, "Whatever you do, don't tell anyone what you have seen. They must be protected and left in peace. They must not be unnecessarily disturbed. " I have held my peace for some years but I think the time has come when I should tell the House the story. It shows how estate keepers were trying to protect those birds and other birds too.

We now have great difficulty with people wanting to see the birds. It would make life a great deal easier if those people asked where on the estates they could go. I gather that the Aviemore area in particular is indulging in what is known as eco-tourism. People are paying to go out to see these birds when they are mating—as one noble Lord said, when they are on the lek—and also when they are nesting. It is intolerable to have a line of people walking though your wood trying to put the caper off their nests. That is happening. I need scarcely say that that is most damaging to what is now becoming a very rare bird. Indeed, our last breeding hen, having been put off her nest three years running by people walking their dogs, eventually disappeared. I say the last one, but I believe that for the past three or four years we have had one pair. I hesitate to tell anyone because they may be disturbed.

Modern forestry no longer allows Scots fir trees to grow or remain in mature condition. The economics are such that, as soon as they reach that stage, which is what the caper are looking for, they are cut down. The reduction in mature pine and the vast increase in predators, about which we heard so much from my two noble friends, apart from the disturbance, did not take place during the heyday of the capercaillie. In this day and age, much of the caper's territory, but not all, is polluted with pine martens. I believe that they have been reintroduced in the south-west by the Forestry Commission. I am not sure about Aberdeenshire; I do not think it is too bad as yet, but I gather that pine martens are spreading there. It is difficult to understand how the caper, as ground nesting birds, are expected to survive these predators, which are more destructive than any mink. An estate of my acquaintance lost two of its last capercaillie hens, while they were nesting, to goshawks released by environmentalists. But also, any caper chicks that survive make delicious meals for buzzards, which easily catch the young chicks on the ground.

One of the requirements for the caper chicks is low ground cover, particularly the likes of blaeberry. If the ground cover under Scots fir trees is not kept short, the heather will grow rank and high, which is totally unsuitable for what are fragile birds up to the age of about 10 or 12 weeks. Furthermore, when the heather is in that condition, there is nothing for them to eat. At one time, the deer, particularly roe deer, which are more territorial than red deer, grazed this woodland cover. But now foresters and environmentalists have branded deer "unfriendly". My noble friend Lord Lindsay again castigated deer on behalf of the RSPB. But I wish to draw attention to the fact that they have a useful purpose. My noble friend talked about deer doing damage. But, after all, many of the woods where the caper existed were fenced off. There were no deer in them. Now the undergrowth has grown and they have lost their habitat. One landowner I know is seriously considering burning the heather under the old Scots pine, but he is obviously frightened of the fire damaging his old trees. I shared his concern, but since speaking with him I have received a report from Stora:Forest, a firm in Sweden. It points out that, in Sweden, there are a number of natural forest fires every year; and, as nature uses fire, the firm has experimented and now burns the undergrowth over considerable areas itself. It states that the bigger trees do not suffer. The matter should be looked at. It is a possibility, although it would need careful controlling.

Is it considered for one moment that, if we increase the directives for protection, anyone would be allowed to burn any area where a caper might be nesting? It would obviate the whole approach. It is important that we try to look after this bird without endless interference from officialdom. That is vital for the survival of the young birds. The proposed directive refers to the repercussion of man's activities and also to the destruction and pollution of habitats. So burning is exactly what people should not be allowed to do.

Nothing is done about stopping the repercussions of man's activities. They are steadily increasing. More and more people are wandering about in the woods, being encouraged to look at birds, and disturbing them when they are nesting. Ospreys have been driven off their nests by people who come to look at them. It is much better that those who not only know about the birds but are very desirous of increasing their numbers should be allowed to continue to look after them.

It was not shooting that caused the crash in their numbers. Once the crash came the enormous increase in predators did not permit their numbers to recover. If this protection order was introduced, would eco-tourists and dog-walkers be banned from any area in which the birds might be nesting? If not, what is the point of the order? What kind of protection other than that which they receive at the moment will be secured by the order?

Possibly one of the most highly protected birds today is the kite, known by the British Army throughout the world as a shite-hawk. Two years ago one pair tried to breed on the ground of my trustee on the Black Isle near an osprey's nest. The ospreys objected to the kites and saw them off. The following year two pairs tried. Again, the ospreys drove off one pair but the other a little further away nested successfully and in due course the RSPB ringed, radioed and decorated the two chicks. Next morning one of the chicks was lying dead below the tree. Further inspection found another chick dead in the nest. Another highly protected creature—the pine marten—had visited the nest. Which is the more highly protected of these species—the pine marten or the kite? There is too much activity in protecting and watching these matters.

Currently, most landowners with capercaillie on their ground are anxious to protect them to their utmost. To initiate this order would remove all this incentive from the landowner and transfer protection to absentee bureaucrats, many of whom know little or nothing of these birds. The RSPB agrees that this protection order is not the best method of protecting this magnificent bird.

One further concern is how the protection areas will be chosen. Often placing a protection order on a piece of land draws attention to it so that public interest increases and destroys exactly what one seeks to protect. I am aware of a classic example. The SNH designated an area to protect great northern divers. Since the designation and increased public disturbance, these birds have not nested there. I understand that five specially protected areas have been set up but they appear to have suffered the greatest losses. I strongly disapprove of any change in the law concerning the capercaillie.

10.42 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, having listened to this debate with much pleasure I feel that I should contribute my own experience of capercaillie, which confirms much of what has been said already. It began some 30 years ago and is confined to the Black Wood of Rannoch on the south shore of Loch Rannoch in Perthshire. In 1969 I became the shooting tenant there of the Forestry Commission, which at the time regarded the bird as something of a pest. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Burton has mentioned, its employees at the time were instructed to tread on any caper nests that they came across because the birds were eating the leading shoots of the Scots pine which had recently been planted over a large area.

The Black Wood itself is one of the most famous remnants of the ancient Caledonian forest and extends to about 2,000 acres, plus outlying trees. In the late 1960s and early 1970s we reckoned that there were up to about 350 caper in an area of 3,000 acres—an almost incredible density by today's standards. It was possible to count over 60 caper on a single lek. Apart from the predations of the forestry employees, the wood was driven once a year at the end of October, when about 20 cocks were shot in the day. This practice had been going on for many years, at least since the 1920s, and the population and annual bag remained pretty constant until the mid-1970s, when it started to decline rapidly.

In the late 1970s we stopped shooting it altogether, estimating that the population had fallen to below 100 birds. As far as I know caper, has not been shot at all in the Black Wood since 1980 but the population has continued to dwindle and today there are few indeed.

So what has happened? What is the cause of this sad decline? From what I have said, it does not appear that shooting can be blamed. The capers' decline in the Black Wood has become much more severe since they were no longer shot. Personally I do not think, as other noble Lords have suggested, that deer fences can be blamed either because our heavy population existed at least 10 years after the fences were built. The odd caper may have flown into them but we did not find many. And, of course, one has to be careful, too, of the anti-deer lobby which is perhaps a little too negative about deer fences, preferring to see massive reductions in the deer population generally.

What else has happened? The blaeberry heather, other natural regeneration and insects such as ants, have all benefited from the deer fences because the ground has been less heavily grazed. One would have thought that that was a good thing for caper, but perhaps it is not because the population was much greater when the ground was more heavily grazed.

There is one other change which other noble Lords have mentioned. Before I come to it, I should perhaps say that I am firmly in the camp of those who believe that habitat is far more important for game birds than is the control of predators. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the pine marten and the polecat have returned to the Black Wood, which were not present in the late 1960s. We suspect that the fox population has also increased as voles and other rodents appear to be more numerous in the denser ground vegetation.

The return of martens and polecats is a good thing in itself, of course, although, like my noble friend Lord Kimball and others, I fear that it could be an important cause of the caper's decline. At least I submit it is something which should be looked into by those more qualified than me.

Another change which other noble Lords have mentioned is that humans use the wood more than they did 30 years ago. Again, this is a good thing and rightly part of Forest Authority policy. But I always found the caper, unlike the grouse, to be a very shy bird, and it may be that it does not like being disturbed too much, especially during the lek and while nesting. I have been fortified in this fear by several conversations I have had with ski guides in the European Alps who were foresters or garnekeepers during the summer and autumn months. They have said that when a ski lift is erected in a new area the caper tend to leave. So I join with the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, and others and submit that human intrusion may be a factor we should take seriously.

It is hard to think what else can be responsible for this tragic decline of the caper. Perhaps the quality of their winter food—pine needles on the ancient and older trees—has grown impoverished with the trees' advancing age. But in many parts of Scotland maturing Scots pine are now available for them again, so this solution is not clear either. Perhaps the maturing trees are not quite mature enough for the caper. However, that may be, it is an area which justifies more scientific examination.

It will be clear from what I have said that I fear protecting the caper in the way suggested may not alone halt its decline. There must be other factors we must look for, and 1 have tried to suggest a few. Nevertheless, we must do all that we can, and so I for one support the protection suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, at least as a temporary measure, while we continue the search for the wider and deeper causes which may underlie this tragic decline of one of our most beautiful and mysterious birds.

10.48 p.m.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I join my noble friends in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. on introducing this interesting and important debate. We have heard speeches on many different aspects, and I shall try not to repeat matters referred to by other noble Lords.

The capercaillie, extinct in the last century, was reintroduced successfully by our Victorian forebears. We are now faced with the same problem; reduction in habitat and numbers. So much so that recent figures show that perhaps only 1,000 birds are left in Scotland.

What can be clone to halt the decline in numbers and to encourage this magnificent bird to make a comeback? As other noble Lords have said, the problem has many causes; for instance, overgrazing damages their habitat, and predators such as foxes and crows have been instrumental in killing chicks. However, a number of birds have actually managed to breed.

Are the Government prepared to consider removing the protection currently enjoyed by the pine marten? If it is a case of the pine marten or the capercaillie, which will the Government save? Perhaps we should consider a reintroduction, particularly in areas where conditions are favourable to the bird.

However, deer fences have also had a great impact on the population in various areas. They have accounted for fatalities in many areas and their removal will lower the number of mortalities. The dilemma we face is that to encourage the natural habitat of the capercaillie, deer fences are required. Therefore, a balance must be achieved. These great birds suffer their highest mortality where the fences are only 4.4 metres from the nearest trees. If that distance were increased where deer fences were imperative, would that reduce the mortality rate among the birds? Are there similar problems in other countries? How have the respective wildlife organisations been able to halt the decline in the population?

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, suggested that the capercaillie should be moved to Schedule 1, Part II of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. That appears to give the birds greater protection throughout the season, in particular the closed season. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to that proposal.

The present voluntary ban on shooting is enforced well by landowners. Much encouragement must be given to those who manage habitats to sustain this great bird.

10.52 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston)

My Lords, the Unstarred Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, has provoked an interesting and informed debate. That is not surprising when one surveys the wealth of countryside experience, some of it ministerial, on the Benches opposite. He raised a number of issues which I shall address later, as did other noble Lords.

First, I should like briefly to deal with the Government's position in relation to the conservation of the capercaillie. I make no apologies for underlining many of the fundamental facts already registered so forcefully by your Lordships tonight. As noble Lords would expect, the Government share the noble Lord's concern to ensure that proper measures are put in place for the conservation of the capercaillie. This magnificent bird is one of the rarest and most endangered species in Britain, and it has a particular relevance in Scotland. I developed a special affection for it during a recent and all-too-brief chairmanship of the Cairngorms Partnership Board.

A full count of the capercaillie took place in the winter of 1993–94. It established that there were only about 2,200 birds left in Britain, all of them in Scotland. The likelihood is that a further count carried out last winter will show a decline. However, the report of that count will not be available until later this year, probably in September. The species is also declining throughout its European range, where the latest estimate is that there are between 200,000 and 300,000 birds left.

We cannot be certain of the reasons for the decline in capercaillie numbers. The interesting speculations tonight point to the complexity of the causality. The advice that we have received indicates that among the likely causes are cold, wet spring weather as well as, as we have heard, predation, collisions with deer fencing, loss and fragmentation of habitat, and reduction of food available to chicks through over-grazing by deer.

As the noble Lord is clearly aware, the Government are advised on natural heritage issues by Scottish Natural Heritage, the Government's statutory nature conservation advisers in Scotland. Its view, which we share, is that all possible measures are already in place to support the capercaillie.

In particular, the noble Lord asked about the creation of special protection areas for the capercaillie under the EC wild birds directive. Under the birds directive, EU member states are required to identify areas to be given special protection for rare or vulnerable species and for regularly occurring migratory species.

In fact, five sites for capercaillie have already been classified (the term used in the directive) as "special protection areas" for the capercaillie. Those sites, all of which, as I have said, are in Scotland, are: Abernethy Forest, the Cairngorms, Glen Tanar, Ballochbuie and Loch Lomond. They extend to a total area of some 61,000 hectares. In addition, one further site is under consideration for classification.

The Government have selected those sites, using the best scientific information available, to meet their international obligations and in doing so to give the special protection of classification to the areas which are most important to the capercaillie. In those areas, which are also designated as sites of special scientific interest, the Government are required by the birds directive to take appropriate steps to avoid pollution or deterioration of habitats or any disturbance to the birds which could be significant in relation to their survival and reproduction. Changes in management require to be notified to Scottish Natural Heritage, which may refuse consent, or advise refusal of consent, if there is a likely adverse effect on the capercaillie.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, also asks the Government to seek the capercaillie's rescheduling as a Schedule 1, Part II species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. I noted the scepticism of the noble Lord, Lord Monro, which, on the basis of present evidence, the Government may share.

Like all birds, the capercaillie is given general protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and as such it is an offence to kill, take or damage birds, nests and eggs, apart from those species listed under Schedule 2. But it is more complicated than that. The capercaillie is listed in Schedule 2, Part I of the 1981 Act, and this allows birds to be hunted outwith the close season prescribed in the Act. The noble Lord is looking for a change in this listing, to the effect that the capercaillie would be included in Part II of Schedule 1. Such inclusion would create a further offence of disturbing birds at their nest or their dependent young. Special penalties are provided for this offence and for killing or taking any birds listed in Schedule 1.

At present, the Government have no plans to change the capercaillie's statutory protection by rescheduling it under the 1981 Act. Although the capercaillie is listed as a quarry species, there is in existence a voluntary, but very successful, ban on the shooting of capercaillie. This has been in place for a number of years. We cannot guarantee that no capercaillies are ever shot, but the number is likely to be very small indeed. As regards listing in Part II of Schedule 1, disturbance on or at the nest is not thought to be a factor which is contributing significantly to the capercaillie's decline.

We have not at this stage received any advice from Scottish Natural Heritage that changes to the statutory protection of the capercaillie are required. We are aware that it has the issue under consideration, and any further recommendations that it makes—I apologise in advance to the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay—will indeed, with a Scottish election just over a week away, be a matter for the Scottish Parliament.

In addition to measures taken under the birds directive and the protection given by the Wildlife and Countryside Act, a number of other actions are already being taken, both within and without designated areas, to help the capercaillie.

As I have already indicated, our advice is that the main threats to the capercaillie are loss of habitat, increased predation, collisions with deer fences and cold wet spring weather. As the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, noted, with the obvious exception of the weather, work on all those issues is being undertaken through the biodiversity species action plan. A steering group has been set up to oversee the implementation of the plan. That steering group is made up of representatives of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—and I am delighted that the chairman, the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, is present to give us the benefit of his experience—and the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, together with the Forestry Commission, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Landowners Federation and the Game Conservancy Trust.

The species action plan identifies a number of actions for the capercaillie. These include site safeguard and management measures; promotion of reduced deer fencing; the removal or marking of deer fencing; consideration of changes to the capercaillie's protected status; provision of advice to farmers and land managers on favourable methods of management; research and monitoring; and consideration of codes of practice. I understand also that a project manager is about to be appointed who will have the full-time job of advising landowners and managers on actions to help the capercaillie.

Many positive steps are being taken to monitor closely the progress of the capercaillie and to make sure that the measures that are in place are as effective as possible. Statutory protection under the 1981 Act and designation of special protection areas can make a contribution, but that will not be the whole answer. Therefore I commend the partners of the capercaillie biodiversity action plan on their efforts. They have succeeded already in stimulating awareness of the capercaillie's problems. That has been amply demonstrated in this debate.

Perhaps I may turn to a few specific points which have been raised. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, raised the problem of fox snares. As I said, we believe that the educational process which is taking place through the biodiversity species action plans will help to ensure that snares are set more appropriately. Of course, foxes predate on capercaillie chicks and, as with all pest species, they must continue to be controlled.

The noble Lord asked also for more special protection area classifications. We already have the most important sites classified. Scottish Natural Heritage will consider suggestions but can only consider sites where birds are actually present.

The noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, raised a number of matters. He asked about our international obligations in relation to this matter. EC directives are matters of international policy. Therefore, post devolution, they are reserved matters. However, the day-to-day implementation of EC directives is a devolved matter. It will be for the Scottish Parliament to consider ongoing bird and habitat directives and issues arising from them, including continuing measures to help the capercaillie.

I was asked about the Forestry Commission and what aid may be available. Funds for a wide range of measures are available, including the removal of redundant deer fences which are hazardous to capercaillie and for funding the marking necessary.1 was impressed by the low cost of the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Burton, that it may be cheaper to do as people did in the past; that is. tie a bunch of heather to the fences. But grants are also available for fence marking, which will help to reduce the number of fence collisions.

In answer to the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, on grants being made available to all capercaillie areas, that will indeed be the case. The woodland improvement grants may be available throughout the capercaillie range for suitable woodlands. The Cairngorm Partnership Area Challenge Fund, introduced by the Forestry Commission in 1996, provides extra funding which should benefit the capercaillie. I thank the noble Earl for his suggestions as regards increasing funding elsewhere. I shall certainly pass on his suggestions about the Scottish forestry strategy.

As regards the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, on alternatives to conventional fencing, I note that a number of trials are already under way. The noble Lord, Lord Kimball, mentioned pine martens. They are one of our rarest remaining Scottish mammals. I am advised by our boffins—not those of the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, in this case—that as yet there is no strong evidence from Scottish Natural Heritage that pine martens have a significant effect on capercailhe numbers. We believe that foxes and crows are the main predators.

As I reach the end of my allotted time, perhaps 1 may say—unconvincingly—that I would have liked the time to address the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Monro, on raptors. However, I know from my experience in the Cairngorm Partnership that for a man to get involved in an argument about raptors when the chairman of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is in the room is probably a dangerous occupation.

Perhaps noble Lords will allow me to end by again thanking the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, for bringing this important matter to our attention. I am sure it has been very educative, certainly for government. I was very amused by the story of the potato-stuffed birds. I just hope that in the enumeration of all the causes of decline he has not added Retsina-flavoured fowl.

House adjourned at six minutes past eleven o'clock.