Boasting rich plumage, striking tail feathers and a unique guttural breeding call, it is one of Scotland’s best-loved birds – and also among the most threatened.

Now the capercaillie could be saved thanks to groundbreaking scientific research into the genetic diversity of the declining population.

The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s (RZSS) WildGenes experts are working with the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project on the enterprise, which it is hoped will help secure a long-term future in the UK for the world’s largest grouse species.

Based at Edinburgh Zoo, the wildlife charity’s conservation genetics laboratory has been commissioned to analyse DNA samples to inform critical conservation action.

The scheme, which involves studying DNA on feathers shed by the birds in the Cairngorms, is part of a project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and could boost understanding of the best method to halt the species’ decline in Britain and possibly further afield.

Over the last 50 years, UK capercaillie numbers have fallen by more than 90 per cent due to a range of issues including human disturbance, habitat loss, predation and climate change.

The majority of remaining birds are now found in the Cairngorms National Park and are at risk of a “genetic bottleneck”.

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Dr Alexander Ball, RZSS WildGenes programme manager, said: “Understanding the genetic diversity of the UK’s capercaillie population is critical for its long-term survival and resilience to threats.

“Our research will determine whether the conservation focus for the species needs to be on expanding the gene pool rather than simply increasing numbers. We will be using a novel technique that will maximise our ability to work with the degraded DNA fragments found in feathers collected from the capercaillie’s current range in the Cairngorms National Park.”

The iconic bird -- whose Gaelic name means “Horse of the Woods” -- was reintroduced to Scotland in 1837 after becoming extinct in the previous century.

A steep decline in recent years has put the birds on the “red list” of species of highest conservation concern, and some estimates suggest there may be fewer than 1,000 individuals.

Carolyn Robertson, project manager for the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project, said: “We’re incredibly excited to be working with the RZSS WildGenes laboratory.

“This method of analysis has never been used in capercaillie conservation before. It will significantly help the management of these birds in the UK, and it could also pave the way for future conservation projects across Eurasia.

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“Collecting the DNA samples for this analysis was a large-scale operation in itself, with a small army of people responding to our project’s call for help.

“Foresters, rangers, stalkers, gamekeepers, ecologists and trained volunteers responded, carefully gathering over 1,000 feathers to be sent to the lab.”

As part of the project’s work, additional capercaillie DNA samples have been obtained from Sweden, Poland, Germany, Austria, Norway and the to give insight into genetic differences between capercaillie in the UK and those elsewhere.

The samples will also enable researchers to develop tools that are applicable to multiple European populations. Dr Ball added: “There is great potential to replicate the toolkit developed during this project and use it to study other capercaillie populations across the global range.

“We can already see genetic information having a positive impact on capercaillie conservation across mainland Europe, so we’re looking forward to seeing what our work with the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project can achieve.”

The project has been in contact with private collection owners across Scotland, but invites anyone who might own a capercaillie specimen to contribute to the research by contacting