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Lord Burlison: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cope, for his kind comments. I thank, too, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for his comments on the scheme. I note what he says. The noble Lord will appreciate that the consultation exercise has to take place before we can respond in the way he suggests.

The potential respondents to the consultation have been given three months, until mid-June, to submit their views. As the noble Lord, Lord Cope, indicated, at this moment in time the issue is ongoing. We shall need to consider all representations carefully and to take advice, as necessary, from the authority and the appeals panel as to the practicality and the affordability of any suggestions that appear to have merit. The appeals panel has a statutory duty to advise the Secretary of State when so asked. That will be done on this occasion.

We also need to consider the fact that, by July, Scotland will have devolved powers and we shall need to consult the Scottish Executive about any changes being considered. That will all take time. It is unlikely that we shall be ready to offer proposals to Parliament before the end of 1999.

I hope that those comments are helpful. However, I appreciate that, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said, my history in this area may be somewhat less than his. I thank both noble Lords for their comments. Accordingly, I invite noble Lords to approve the draft alterations.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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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 those 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

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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.

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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

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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 capercaillie.

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

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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

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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

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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.

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