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.