Animals seem to drop in and out of popularity like the latest trends in fashion. In history, this malleable approach to nature was clearly evident in nineteenth-century Scotland. I felt moved to introduce this topic today thanks to the eighteenth-century reading group here at the University of Leeds. The members kindly agreed to alter their meeting times to include yours truly, who is interested in their latest book choice – Fredrik Jonsson’s Enlightenment’s Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism (2013). Needless to say, a review will follow once we have finished! But for now, here is a bit of species history, courtesy of a large woodland grouse, the capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus).
Hunting the capercaillie: Plate from J.A. Harvie-Brown, The Capercaillie in Scotland (Edinburgh, 1879).
The capercaillie had been driven to extinction in Scotland by 1785, when the last two recorded individuals were shot at Ballochbuie in Deeside. The extirpation of the capercaillie was largely attributable to habitat loss, the species being adversely affected by decreasing forest cover since the Mesolithic. However, the role of direct human pressure through hunting undoubtedly contributed to its disappearance. The hungry Reverend Lachlan Shaw in his 1775 The History of the Province of Moray described the flesh of the capercaillie as “tender and delicious,” with a hint of “resinous fir.” As the species vanished (possibly into Reverend Shaw’s stomach), poetic flourishes came from saddened Scotsmen, who spoke of the capercaillie as the “finest of feathered game”, once residing in the “noblest” Scottish forests.
During a thirty-year absence, changing land-use practices inadvertently restored former capercaillie habitat. Highland estates that had been previously cleared for sheep established deer forests and grouse moors, catering for the new leisure pursuits of the Victorian upper classes. The reforestation of Scottish estates, at first driven by aristocratic social assertiveness, aesthetic sense, patriotism and long-term profit, began a process of “unconscious rewilding.” Estates such as Rothiemurchus were cleared of sheep for grouse shooting, while other forests reappeared following the end of the French War. A competitive lease market also lent itself to the profitable exploitation of sporting visitors to the estate by the late eighteenth century.
Changing depictions: From left, in B.R. Morris, British Game Birds and Wildfowl (London. 1855) and R. Lydekker, The Sportsman’s British Bird Book (London, 1908). The birds photographed on the right are taxidermy specimens.
According to naturalist John Alexander Harvie-Brown, the first attempted reintroduction of the capercaillie to Scotland took place in either 1827 or 1828, with the importation of Swedish birds to Mar Lodge. The following year, the Highland Society of Scotland debated reintroduction, but reached the conclusion that attempts to alter the natural relations between wild animals and the state of a country’s population and terrain was fraught with difficulty. Despite such setbacks, the first successful introduction of the capercaillie took place at Taymouth thanks to Lord Breadalbane in 1837. A successful introduction at Arran in 1843 resulted from birds sent from Taymouth, with more birds arriving from Sweden in 1846. In 1868 capercaillies were bred in Torwood and eggs were successfully hatched at Invereran, in Strathdon in 1873. The feverish rush by landowners to claim possession of the bird is explained by the economic and social advantages associated with game ownership in the nineteenth century.
The Vertebrate Fauna of Sutherland (1884) described the capercaillie as a “desirable addition” to the range of game in the district. Capercaillies on the estate of Monymusk were first shot in 1891, following sightings of the birds only two years earlier. Sportsman Charles St. John considered the reintroduction of the capercaillie a “spirited example”, preceding the introduction of other “ornamental and valuable” game birds.
However, these avian arrivals were by no means universally embraced in Scotland. While certain estates, including those at Athole and Forfar, preserved and nurtured capercaillie populations, on others they were killed at every opportunity. Controversy seems to have arisen over the effect of capercaillie on black grouse populations. The reception of capercaillies on Scottish estates was dependent upon the outcome of this debate. Sir Robert Menzies, writing to Harvie-Brown in 1843, preserved migrating capercaillies on his lands, because he believed they did no harm to “the grouse or black game.” Sportsman Charles Dixon (1893) pointed to a lack of evidence linking the supposed “theft” of black grouse and pheasant nests by capercaillie.
However, legitimate concerns were also raised regarding forest damage. Capercaillies were capable of considerable damage to small forests, eating large amounts of the shoots and buds of the Scotch fir. Harvie-Brown agreed with this assessment, declaring the damage done to woods and forests a “sad thorn” in proprietor’s sides. At the time of writing (1879), Harvie-Brown also reported that the appearance of numerous capercaillies on an estate would lead to shooting, rather than fostering. Ornithologist Robert Gray reported the shooting of “wandering” capercaillies in pine plantations near Glasgow in 1876.
Reintroductions of the capercaillie were driven by thoughts of economic and social gain through the restocking of a new game species. However, these very human factors could be extremely fickle, as many of the newly-arrived birds discovered to their cost.
Grey, R., ‘On the Birds of Galsgow and its Vicinity’, in E.R., Alston, R., Gray, P., Cameron, J., Ramsay & J., Stirton, Notes on the Fauna and Flora of the West of Scotland (Glasgow, 1876), pp. ix-xvi.
Harvie-Brown, J.A., The Capercaillie in Scotland (Edinburgh, 1879).
Ritchie, J., The Influence of Man on Animal Life in Scotland (Cambridge, 1920).
Stevenson, G.B., “An Historical Account of the Social and Ecological Causes of Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus. Extinction and Reintroduction in Scotland”, PhD Thesis, University of Stirling (2007).