I work as an advisory assistant for the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project, a partnership project with landowners, conservation bodies and communities, led by the Cairngorms National Park Authority. The focus of my work is gathering and submitting data to monitor the capercaillie population in the Cairngorms National Park but I am also involved in working with volunteers and liaising with landowners.
At the end of June, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to Norway as part of the Erasmus programme through Archnetwork. The title of the course was ‘Wildlife, Carnivore and Human Management in Norway’. We were based at Evenstad, a campus for the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences. Rather than the dramatic Fjords of the West, we were introduced to a landscape not dissimilar to Cairngorms Connect and explored the east of Norway with the enormous Glomma river running through it, floodplains and adjacent farmland, forest and then mountains. We started near to the campus visiting a private landowner nearby who manages his land for hunting and forestry followed by a presentation from the Carnivore visitor centre at Koppang. We had numerous engaging and interesting lectures on campus regarding different predator species and their management in Norway (wolf, lynx and fox) and a presentation of a phD researching woodland game nest predation which was particularly relevant to current conversations concerning capercaillie. After an evening searching for beavers on the Glomma from a canoe (we saw 3!) we headed north to hear about management of both visitors and wildlife in the 2 National Parks, Rondane and Dovrefjell.
Hunting, Rural Communities and Norwegian Culture
Whilst the Norwegian model for tree cover and montane habitat is seen by many in Scotland as one to aspire to due to shared species and similar climate and latitude, it became clear to me very quickly that culturally Scotland and Norway are quite different.
Hunting appears to be protected by the Government due to their commitment to retain traditional rural communities through subsidies. I learnt that this can be traced back to the threat of invasion and the desire for the Government to ensure that rural communities continue to thrive and farm the land, should self sufficiency or indeed men on the ground be required in future years. Previously many would find this statement quite paranoid and far fetched but the given the timing of our trip coinciding with Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, it would appear not!
Hunting appears to be an accepted activity for rural communities in Norway, steeped in tradition and history as it is in Scotland but with one vital difference, available for everyone, priority given to local residents and affordable with game meat routinely sold and eaten in Norway as it is considered a part of the culture and a commercial commodity. About one third of Norway is owned by the state where hunted is permitted, usually by locals. The very culture of hunting in Norway dates back to when hunting was for food and fur and to protect livestock, laterally it is now more for sport and recreation (although livestock protection is still a driving force for the hunting of predators) with the whole experience being part of the day, being outside and keeping fit, trophies are not often sought after. This is in stark contrast to Scotland where hunting traditionally was about numbers and trophies for the landed gentry and in the present day still is to a certain extent with reared game birds shot, trophy deer heads sought after, large bags of birds shot celebrated and it is unaffordable for the average working class person. There were 528,408 registered hunters in Norway for the year 2021/22, approximately 9% of the population over 16. According to BASC around 120,000 people shoot in Scotland which amounts to approximately 2.6% of the population over 16, less than half the percentage of those that hunt in Norway. Anyone wanting to hunt in Norway must register on the Norwegian register of hunters and apply for a license every year. The register requires the applicant to pass a shooting test and a hunting test and be 16 years or more (18 for big game). The license holder must submit their hunting records every year or face an additional fee. In contrast, there is no requirement for a shotgun or firearms holder to pass a proficiency test or hunting test in Scotland and there is no central system within Scotland for the submission of game bag records. Private landowners in Norway appear to be more numerous with a focus on diversity: farming, timber production and hunting.
During all our lectures and talks, wildlife management was the term widely used for the harvest of either herbivores (moose, reindeer, roe and red deer) to eat, or the control of predators. It was quite surprising for me to discover that all predators can be hunted, some without the need for a license (fox, badger, mink, pine marten), and some hunted under a quota system (lynx, wolverine, bear and wolves). Decision making is decentralised through the empowerment of local stakeholders with hunters playing a key role by submitting bag data and helping with the collection of scats for DNA analysis and trail cams to monitor populations of predators. Hunters also complete woodland grouse surveys on an annual basis using pointing dogs and a generic monitoring system resulting in reliable data being uploaded into a central government database. The monitoring carried out by hunters was generally without remuneration, I found this passion to carry out this work voluntarily refreshing and forward thinking. This database of population numbers (including genetics and family groups for large carnivores) subsequently informed decision makers on quotas or even the complete withdrawal of some species from hunting for that year, on a local level. Landowners are subsequently trusted to manage mammal populations on their land. Management of species such as moose for example has been gradually decentralised to allow more precise management in accordance with local management goals. I found this process made far more sense given the dispersal and reproductivity of each species of mammal being quite different along with their local densities. Whilst this detailed and annual monitoring takes places for red deer in Scotland, it does not happen for any other mammals unless instigated by an individual landowner or organisation, even then, not all data collected is submitted to the UK central database for biological records, the National Biodiversity Network Atlas. In the presentations that we listened to, it was quite clear that the Norwegian government invested heavily in the population monitoring of both herbivores and predators, and in subsidies to the rural community for losses to stock as a result of predators. In contrast, the Scottish government relies on external funding, the work of charitable organisations and/or scientific research projects for the monitoring of mammals and collation of their records other than the red deer. In Scotland there appears to be a lack of information on population distribution and density of mammals on an annual basis. Whilst there was a UK wide publication recently commissioned ‘Britain’s Mammals 2018’ based on individual biological records (which rely on individuals submitting records) of mammals, prior to this it was last carried out in 1995! The last official survey for badgers in Scotland was carried out in 2006-2009. I feel that our monitoring of mammals is often based on reactivity (to planning proposals for example) rather than continuous and consistent annual monitoring so that when emotive questions arise about the removal of pine martens or the change in protected status of any mammal, we do not have reliable and up to date population density and distribution data and this, in large, is due to lack of funding. At a landowner level in Scotland there appears to be complete inconsistency with regards to the submission of biological records, I hazard a guess that this is down to mistrust but also the money that can be gained from sharing such data.
Tourism and disturbance
Whilst tourism and disturbance did not feature in our lectures for capercaillie, most probably due to their vast areas of forestry in contrast to ours it is not considered an issue, one species that is suffering from disturbance is the wild reindeer population. This is due to an increase in tourism but also from the popularity and increased use and construction of cabins in the forest by Norwegians. We visited the Wild Reindeer Visitor Centre at Hjerkinn where they are working hard to educate visitors on the effects the movement of the human population has on wild reindeer. I had no idea that wild reindeer were so sensitive to disturbance, they will not cross roads or tracks and thus any new roads and tracks severely restrict their nomadic behaviour and affect their seasonal migration, creating a fragmented range for them. Tourist pressure on wild reindeer has also increased since the introduction of the musk ox with visitors flocking far and wide to see them. We walked up to a stunning viewpoint and pavilion, Snohetta, an inspiration for a new Insh marshes hide! We were lucky enough to see several musk ox grazing on the plains below but approximately half a mile away. Following a huge amount of data collected from continuously radio tagged reindeer since 2001 and over 60 peer reviewed papers studying disturbance and the effects of tourists and recreational activities on reindeer in the Nordic countries, the Norwegian National Parks are currently considering channeling tourist activities away from core reindeer areas during critical periods, for example identifying and protecting calving areas. This was refreshing to hear given the current pressure on capercaillie in the Cairngorms National Park, a bird that has been accused as being over researched and the subject of too many studies, I would beg to differ given the work that has gone into monitoring the wild reindeer in Norway!
There is so much more to say on what I have learnt in just one week, it has been a fantastic experience for me, I feel extremely lucky.
I have submitted a short piece to the RPSB Scotland bulletin and have organised a presentation to my colleagues on the capercaillie project but I am also considering sending an article into BASC (British Association for Shooting and Conservation) for publication.