Cairngorms Connect Predator Project

Predators have been returning to the Cairngorms Connect area over the last few decades. For example, there are now 11 species of regularly breeding raptor, including golden eagle, white-tailed eagle, hen harrier, peregrine and merlin. Mammal predators include red foxes and badgers, and pine marten populations have increased significantly. Within the same area there are prey species that are threatened, such as capercaillie. To study this changing community of predators, and the implications for prey species, a group of organisations and individuals is collaborating in the Cairngorms Connect Predator Project (CCPP). Additional Partners in the CCPP include The University of Aberdeen and Highland Raptor Study Group members. 

Aim of project

The aims of the Cairngorms Connect Predator Project are:

Project work

1.Lethal and non-lethal interactions and competition in guilds of boreal forest predators (PhD)

The composition of the predator guild is changing rapidly in the area of the Cairngorms Connect; the previously absent pine marten is now widespread, jays have colonised the forest and northern goshawks and golden eagles are thriving. Factoring in these, often protected, recovering predator populations when planning the management of threatened prey species such as the capercaillie, constitutes a novel challenge for wildlife conservation in Scotland.

While higher abundances of certain species of predators could increase predation pressure upon already vulnerable prey species, predators are known to interfere with each other. Examples of this are eagles known to prey on foxes, foxes to kill martens and weasels or goshawks to prey upon smaller raptors. Consequentially, the restoration of predator interactions has the potential to locally modulate predation pressure and thereby benefit populations of prey species.

Quantitative knowledge of the strength and type of these interactions in newly enriched assemblages of species that could inform wildlife management is scarce. This PhD aimed to bridge this gap and understand the role of these interactions in structuring predator communities, their drivers, and the implications for prey. This was achieved through, among other tools, the use of the latest genetic methods to find out what foxes, martens and badgers are eating, and a large camera trapping effort.

This PhD study was carried out by Christian Navarro, and funded by University of Aberdeen, Forestry and Land Scotland and Wildland Limited. It is available to download here

2. Managing the impact of recovering mobile predators on endangered birds through prey switching: A field experiment in a habitat restoration landscape in the Cairngorms (PhD). 

Forest restoration across Cairngorms Connect entails heavy culling of red and roe deer to allow tree regeneration, whilst also providing, low risk food In the form of carrion, exploited by meso-carnivores such as pine marten, badger, and red fox. This risk-free food may have positive survival benefits for meso-carnivores within restoration landscapes. It is not known whether this will have impacts on populations of iconic species of high conservation concern such as capercaillie. This PhD project seeks to assess the usage of human provided carrion and evaluate if modifying the provisioning of carrion subsidies can be used as a diversionary food resource during the breeding season of ground nesting birds, by altering the foraging behaviour, to reduce additive predation pressure.

Using camera traps, this project monitors ungulate carrion over winter, as a hunting biproduct. Then in Spring to monitor deliberate diversionary feeding sites deployed aiming to alter foraging behaviour locally. False nests are deployed to monitor alterations in nest predation alongside diversionary feeding at a landscape scale. We are also trialing non-invasive (camera traps) monitoring of rare prey, such as capercaillie at dust bathing sites.

Current findings show a range of predators feeding on ungulate biproducts, ranging from Badgers to White Tailed Eagles. Different levels of usage, seasonally, highlights a need to understand when may be best to leave hunting biproducts in restoration. Early results indicate that deliberate deployment of diversionary feeding may alleviate additive predation pressure.

This PhD study is being carried out by Jack Bamber, and is funded by University of Aberdeen, Forestry and Land Scotland, Natural Environment Research Council and Wildland Limited. 

3. How do recreational activities alter spatiotemporal species interactions networks, and can this knowledge assist in promoting pro-environmental behaviour? (PhD)

Recreational activity is widespread throughout the Cairngorms Connect region, with over 1.9 million people visiting the Cairngorms National Park annually to enjoy hikes, bike rides and immersion in nature. However, such activities can disturb animals causing impacts similar to the non-lethal effects of predation. This can alter individual fitness and may have consequences for species activity, distributions and interspecific interactions. Working in collaboration with the Centre of Research into Environmental and Ecological Modelling, this new PhD research aims to understand and predict the responses of ecological communities to recreational disturbance. 

This will be achieved through the monitoring of avian and mammalian communities using remote sensing techniques deployed across gradients of anthropogenic disturbance. Camera traps will be used to assess the activity and interactions among species of mammals and ground dwelling birds. Further, AudioMoths will be deployed to collect bio-acoustic data and survey the wider avian community.

 This research will take a coupled socio-ecological systems approach, conducting surveys in parallel to assess and better understand the behavioural motivations and tolerance of landscape users. This will provide evidence to make informed management recommendations based on factors identified to increase willingness to change, marrying the benefits for the landscape users and ecological communities. 

This PhD is being carried out by Amber Cowans, and funded by University of St. Andrews, Forestry and Land Scotland and Natural Environment Research Council. 

3. Annual monitoring of key species. 

Voles are a key prey item for many of the predators in the CCPP area. However, vole populations go up and down over the course of several years. Therefore, it is possible that in years of low vole numbers, predators will focus on other prey species and perhaps vulnerable species like capercaillie and red squirrels. Therefore, it is important to monitor vole populations to understand what is going on within the ecosystem.

Capercaillie are threatened with extinction from Scotland and therefore the population is closely monitored in the CCPP area. All leks are counted each year.

Raptor monitoring is carried out on a largely voluntary basis by members of the Highland Raptor Study Group. This work includes some nest clearances at the end of the season, which give an indication of the prey species eaten by raptors.

4. Deer grallochs study

To protect and enhance the habitat within the Cairngorms Connect area, it is important to control deer numbers; given that large carnivores like wolves are not present. When a deer is shot, the intestines are removed immediately and left on site. This provides many predators with a lot of food, which could have implications for their populations and their impact on vulnerable prey species. This study deploys camera traps at grallochs to understand what predators consume grallochs and how all the predator species interact.


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