How much is a bird worth?

The capercaillie is without doubt a fine looking bird. One of the finest. And they’re in trouble. Nobody really knows why but their numbers are perilous; moreover,  they are entirely dependent upon a pine forest which itself is fragmented across the Scottish Highlands. Inevitably with such an icon, conservation action is urgent, focused…and expensive. So is this denizen of the wildwood worth all the effort?

Well as with most things that depends on who you’re asking, but the plight of the beleaguered caper has become entwined with the needs of people living in the Cairngorms National Park. This is certainly not a new phenomenon but one that has crystallised recently with a requirement for affordable housing in a local village. The problem? The housing is destined to be built in what many consider to be prime caper forest.

So which species has the greater claim? Personally speaking, I can see both sides and I genuinely don’t know the answer. But let’s put aside the legislative requirement for capercaillie protection on the one hand, and the social needs of the local community on the other. Ecologically speaking, us humans are adaptable creatures and can find shelter in a wide variety of habitats. Unfortunately the same can’t be said about capercaillie. But is it really the end of the world if a few birds get pushed out of their home? No. They will be missed but within the wider scheme of things, it will make little difference. Or will it?

We can nick a bit of forest here, a flower-filled meadow there, a bit of a bog, a piece of moorland – none of it makes much difference here and now, but where do we draw the line? I’d be the first to agree that short-term, our lives will not be significantly affected by the presence or otherwise, of Scotland’s capercaillie. But then we said that about the bear, the lynx, the wolf, the sea eagle, the red kite, the osprey, the beaver and doubtless millions of micro-organisms that have slipped through our fingers. Surely we’ve learned some lessons? If I needed a house in a local village, I might not care about these things, but the irony of this is the desire on the part of everyone living in this village, to secure a future for the next generation. Nothing wrong with that of course, but that future will undoubtedly be impoverished in the absence of a (irretrievable) healthy environment, along with all the component pieces of the jigsaw. So for me, this is not a question of capercaillie or people; it boils down to whether we prioritise our short-term or long-term needs. 100 years from now, a few extra houses won’t excuse us in the eyes of a future generation for allowing a species to slip away.

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7 thoughts on “How much is a bird worth?

  1. “So which species has the greater claim?” Personally I would say the Capercaillie. Humans have the capacity for choice and reason and hence could opt to build their houses elsewhere. This may be less convenient, but not for the Capercaillie if we are actively and consciously destroying its habitat, when alternative options are available. With our capacity for reason and understanding comes an obligation to use that facility wisely and as you point out with an eye on the longer term implications. A visitor from another planet might well be perplexed that within such a relatively small geographical area we are simultaneously pursuing policies of habitat conservation and destruction!

  2. As you say, a difficult one to find an answer to. I’m not sure what the answer is, other than perhaps kerbing our own numbers (that will go down well!!). The idea of building somewhere else to accommodate our growing population, on the face of it, seems like a solution – but is it? Save the pine forest and try to safeguard the Capercaille – great. Unfortunately, now all we’ve done is push the problem to somewhere else and put something else under threat. Maybe not something (at first glance) that appears quite as appealing, but with eco-systems so entwined, who knows what effect it will have. How do you decide what should or shouldn’t be worth preserving to satisfy our own needs? Without wishing to be too much of a tree hugger here (and for the record, I work in the construction industry, so ought to be welcoming development, right?) – There is only so much space and a finite limit on resources. If we (and perhaps more importantly, future generations) want to continue to enjoy the things around us we have today, then maybe we are the ones that need to change.

  3. As you say, a topic filled with debate. As are all conservation objectives.
    It is sad as naturalists we have to begin to quantify the value of biodiversity economically. Though not a new process, the political climate is driving the need to quantify our ecosystem by its services and economic values. It is with that in mind which we must tackle the problem. Though not the most publicly appealing bird, though to me is one of THE most charismatic of all, the Caper itself can have a major economic benefit. As i’m sure Mr Cairns agrees with me here. Drawing wildlife tourists from all over to come and photograph this magnificent creature, his business and the surrounding economy can prosper.
    I myself am a victim of Cairngorms Mania and it is the bird life that took me there initially, i’m from Lancashire. If you consider that Mull can triple its economy in the space of a few years through the re-introduction of Sea Eagles (associated income now standing at over £5 million), then there is massive potential for an even scarcer bird. Accepted that tourist numbers need to be carefully managed in the highlands area to avoid disturbance, there is still scope for economic benefits.
    So I suggest fighting fire with fire and celebrating our natural diversity, and allow for economic growth based on the attraction of the beautiful species.

  4. you’ve summarised the development/conservation dilemma very well Pete. As an Environmental Economist (and no, that isn’t always an oxymoron :-)) my head says we have to quantify the value of the capercaillie and its habitat and compare it to the variety of benefits that affordable housing may bring. The only common metric that allows us to compare these various costs and benefits is money and, sadly, the monetary benefits of the capercaillie will be largely expressed in terms of instrumental value i.e. if they of ‘use’ or benefit to humans then there is a monetary cost associated with their loss. There are a variety of techniques for quantifying these monetary costs although they are not able to capture the intrinsic value of a species and hence that will always be overlooked.

    My head says all of the above. More often than not my heart takes a slightly less logical, and perhaps less rational, approach and says we should protect threatened species such as the capercaillie and human development should fit around it (within reason).

    I think Doug has the answer though. The greater the (monetary) benefit associated with protecting a species, particularly if it falls to local communities, the stronger the case and the political will to protect that species.

    Perhaps someone should set up a hide in the threatened piece of forest (assuming that’s allowed) and start charging togs for the benefit of photographing the capercaillies. That potentially lost revenue can then be factored into the cost-benefit analysis which I would hope someone, perhaps the local authority, is undertaking.

  5. Matt Quote -“Perhaps someone should set up a hide in the threatened piece of forest (assuming that’s allowed) and start charging togs for the benefit of photographing the capercaillies. That potentially lost revenue can then be factored into the cost-benefit analysis which I would hope someone, perhaps the local authority, is undertaking.”

    The commercialisation of our countryside is what is destroying it. Adding paying hides in the countryside is not acceptable. Basically those who can pay can enjoy the wildlife while those that cannot, or will not, are going to end up excluded.

    I am all for arguing in any way we can to have the countryside protected, but adding to the destruction is not the way forward. Just my opinion of course but the protection of wildlife for purely commercial reasons is not going to protect it in the long term. It needs to be an integral part of our society, not just an add on “Disney Land Experience” for the well off to enjoy.

    As for housing there are plenty of massive mansions that should be converted to flats and over a million houses across the country that are empty. We should start there first.

    1. David quote “The commercialisation of our countryside is what is destroying it.” But it’s not the commercialisation of wildlife that is destroying the countryside. Perhaps the main cause of habitat destruction has been the replacement of natural habitats by land use options that yield commercial benefits (i.e. urbanisation, industrial scale agriculture etc). As long as wildlife provides no commercial benefit this is likely to continue given the unyielding pressure of economic forces. In an ideal world I would agree with your argument that we shouldn’t commercialise wildlife but the last 50+ years has shown what happens if we don’t. But I agree we have to get the balance right, I certainly don’t want to see the Disneyfication of the countryside!

      David quote “As for housing there are plenty of massive mansions that should be converted to flats and over a million houses across the country that are empty. We should start there first.” I would agree, but this only really works in urban areas. Unfortunately it’s unlikely to solve the need for affordable housing in rural areas such as the village referred to in Pete’s post.

  6. Not the commercialisation of wildlife that is destroying the countryside? We will have to agree to differ on this one as the building of hides as well as the inevitable cafe, shop, car parks etc that seem to get waved through the planning process certainly appear as destruction to me. While I would agree such developments are perhaps the lesser of many evils facing our wildlife, I find them difficult if not impossible to support in most instances.

    As for the need to provide affordable housing in the village Pete highlighted. I also live in the countryside and the building of so-called affordable housing over the last few decades has not solved the housing problems here or elsewhere as far as I am aware. Unless there are stipulations on ownership then most get bought up, either directly, or indirectly as second homes and buy to let.

    One thing for certain this discussion certainly highlights how difficult, if not impossible, it is to find a solution to meeting the needs of everyone on our increasingly crowded island. No doubt some form of middle ground will be the way forward, but sadly from past observations it is usually the natural world that makes the greatest compromise.

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