independent

Monday 23 September 2019

Scottish Highlands still a Capercaillie stronghold

The male Capercaillie, a game bird, is the largest member of the grouse family.
The male Capercaillie, a game bird, is the largest member of the grouse family.

Jim Hurley - Nature Trail

The most recent wild bird to become extinct in Ireland as a breeding species is the Corn Bunting, a stocky, brown farmland relative of finches. It ceased to breed here during the 1990s and joins other breeding species that we have lost such as the Osprey, Common Crane, Capercaillie and Great Auk.

The Great Auk is extinct globally so the only way it might possibly be brought back from the dead is via advances in genetic engineering using the very limited number of stuffed specimens preserved in museums, including one captured in Co Waterford in 1834 and preserved in Trinity College, Dublin.

The other extinct species are all still living and breeding outside Ireland and could be the subject of reintroduction as has been done successfully with the Red Kite, White-tailed Eagle and Golden Eagle.

An attempt was made during the nineteenth-century to reintroduce the Capercaillie to Ireland, but it proved unsuccessful. The very large grouse, in fact the largest member of the grouse family, has very precise habitat needs, old pine forest on rocky ground with an abundance of berry-bearing shrubs and mosses. The precision of its lost habitat requirements makes it a difficult bird to contemplate reintroducing.

Male Capercaillie are dark in colour and are as big as a small turkey. During the breeding season they utter a loud, far-carrying repetitive series of double-clicks commencing with a sound like ping-pong balls dropping on a tiled floor and rapidly accelerating into champagne corks popping.

The Scottish Highlands were, and still are, a Capercaillie stronghold. The birds' clicking sounded to some local people like the sound of a trotting horse. Consequently, the bird became known in Scottish Gaelic as 'capall coille', literally 'wood horse'. The English name 'Capercaillie' is interpreted as a mis-pronunciation or corruption of the Gaelic 'capall coille'.

Male Capercaillie are so dark they appear to be black. Females are an attractive brown and rusty-orange in colour and are only half the size of the thick-set males.

The Capercaillie became extinct in Britain in the mid-18th century and in Ireland in the late 18th century. In 1837 the species was reintroduced to Scotland from Sweden. Numbers grew rapidly but the species is now facing extinction again. More than 80% of the remaining birds live almost wholly restricted to forests in Strathspey in the Cairngorms. The Scottish Gamekeepers Association reckon the huge woodland game bird is again doomed to die out in Scotland.

Wicklow People

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