Marsh harrier

Resurgent Raptors

I wrote a while ago about some of our recent bird colonists, including little egrets and ring-necked parakeets. Some of these recent colonisers, though, are actually birds that used to breed here but were driven to extinction before returning. These include some of our most charismatic raptor species. A few raptor species managed to cling on in small numbers following centuries of persecution and habitat loss but have now also bounced back, returning to areas they haven’t bred in in for many years. Some of these re-colonisations and recoveries have happened naturally in response to indirect aid from humans such as chemical bans. Others, meanwhile, have received more of a targeted helping hand via reintroductions and reinforcements. All are still extremely vulnerable to persecution and pollution leading some conservationists to worry these gains might only be short-lived. Let’s meet these resurgent raptors.

Natural Returnees

Ospreys

The most famous of our returning raptors is probably the osprey, a dynamic fish-eating raptor. This distinctive brown and white bird breeds on every continent except Antarctica and used to breed across the UK. However, because they competed with humans for fish such as salmon and trout, humans hunted them to extinction in England in the mid-19th century. By 1916, Scotland lost its last ospreys as well. Habitat loss and egg collecting also played a part in their demise. There may have been sporadic breeding in Scotland across the next three or four decades, but the bird was no longer a regular breeder.

Rutland Osprey
Ospreys often hover over water looking for fish

In 1954, remarkably, a Scandinavian pair appeared at Loch Garten in the Cairngorms. This first nest was kept secret and guarded by conservationists and volunteers around the clock due to fears egg collectors would target it. The RSPB decided to change tack completely, though, in 1959. They realised that the best protection for the birds was to allow visitors to the site, putting thousands of eyes on the nest. Subsequent recolonisation was slow but there are now around 300 pairs in Scotland. A successful reintroduction programme at Rutland Water in 1996 and a more recent one at Poole Harbour mean they now breed again in England, too. Birds returned naturally to Wales in 2004, although numbers remain low. Ospreys can appear quite gull-like in flight with their long, thin wings. They often hover above water before plunging down to seize their prey.

Osprey male
Ospreys prey almost exclusively on fish
Marsh Harriers

The marsh harrier was another victim of Victorian persecution. This, added to the drainage of large areas of land in its core East Anglia range meant that it was extinct in the UK by the end of the 19th century. From the 1920s, occasional birds originating from the continent bred in Norfolk and Suffolk. However, as with many of our birds of prey, harmful pesticides made successful breeding extremely difficult, an issue highlighted by Rachel Carson in her 1962 book, Silent Spring. Like many of our raptor species, their position at the top of the food chain meant that toxic pesticides such as DDT concentrated at higher levels in their systems. This caused egg thinning and reproductive failure. This, coupled with continued persecution and habitat loss, meant that by 1971, only one female nested in the whole of the UK.

Marsh harriers like this male often fly low over reedbeds looking for prey

Once DDT and related chemicals were banned, and with wetland restoration taking off in East Anglia and Somerset, marsh harriers began to recover, though. There are breeding populations from Kent up to south Yorkshire, in the Somerset Levels, Dorset, the northwest and a few also breed in Scotland. Just under 400 pairs now breed in the UK. This is the largest of our harriers. The larger females are chocolate brown with varying degrees of cream on the head. Males are a beautiful mix of russet, brown and grey with black wing tips. Watching these birds as they quarter over a reedbed is a truly incredible sight. If you are really lucky, you might see their tumbling courtship display in the spring. Like ospreys, they are ostensibly a summer migrant, but many now stay all year round instead of leaving for Africa in the autumn.

Female marsh harrier
Female marsh harriers have cream head markings
Buzzards

Buzzards are another species that has bounced back without reintroductions. Once seen across the UK, decades of persecution restricted them to more remote western and northern parts of the country. Although never extinct as a breeding bird, Wales and parts of Scotland were its only real strongholds. Landowners main motive for killing them was a perceived threat to gamebird populations. In reality they posed little threat to pheasants and grouse, preferring a combination of rabbits and other small mammals, small birds, carrion and even worms. In fact, their taste for rabbits hampered early signs of recovery in the 20th century. An outbreak of myxomatosis in rabbits in the 1950s affected food availability. Pesticide use was, as with marsh harriers, also a factor.

Buzzard
Buzzards are now our commonest raptor

The banning of certain pesticides, plus the realisation among many landowners that buzzards aren’t a huge threat to their stocks meant that their numbers began to recover in the 1970s. After a slow start, this recovery really took hold in the 1990s. They are now present again across their historic range, nesting in every county in the UK. There are currently approximately 70,000 pairs here. Colouration is surprisingly varied. Some individuals are almost completely dark brown while others are very pale. The excited novice can mistake them for eagles in Scotland. This earns them the nickname ‘tourist eagle’. However, they are much smaller with broad, more rounded wings and a shorter tail. They have a distinctive mewing call. In fact, the Welsh name for buzzard, bwncath, more or less means ‘cat-bird’.

Golden eagle and buzzard
This picture shows just how much larger the golden eagle on the left is than the buzzard on the right
Peregrine Falcons

As with all the raptors featured here, persecution was one of the biggest causes of peregrine falcon declines in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As well as gamekeepers and farmers targeting them for killing stock, their skill at taking pigeons put them into conflict with pigeon loft owners. It was even legal to kill them during World War II in order to protect valuable message-carrying homing pigeons. (Although MI5 attempted to use the falcons against German pigeons with little success.) A more sudden and devastating crash occurred in the 1950s, and they came very close to extinction in the UK. Peregrines were one of the hardest hit species by the build-up of pesticides in the food chain. The affects of these chemicals on the species, in particular their eggshells, meant that by the early 1960s, 80% of their population were gone.

Peregrine falcon
Peregrines are an increasingly common sight in towns and cities

A slow recovery followed the chemical bans of the early 1970s. Peregrines are now found across much of the UK. They also began to take advantage of a new habitat as their numbers grew. To a peregrine, our urban buildings don’t look any different from their preferred cliff and rock nesting sites. Many towns and cities now have peregrines nesting on churches, towers and other tall buildings. Some of these sites have installed nest cameras or watch points to engage the public, including Tate Modern in London and Salisbury Cathedral.

Juvenile peregrine
Juveniles have vertical breast markings rather than horizontal ones

Living in Bristol, there are not many days I can’t see a peregrine falcon in the city if I head to the right area, a phenomenal privilege. Peregrines are the quintessential falcon with a masked face and pointed wings. A slate grey back and barred breast complete the picture. They the fastest bird on Earth, reaching speeds of up to 320 km per hour when they dive. Peregrines are also one of the most widespread raptors. They live on every continent except Antarctica and manage to exist in habitats ranging from the tundra to the tropics.

With a Helping Hand

Goshawks

Goshawks are large hawks with grey backs and wings and barred undersides. They look very much like larger sparrowhawks, although goshawk males lack the peach wash of their counterparts. Goshawk eyes are bright orange, unlike sparrowhawks’ yellow ones. In the UK, their preference for dense woods meant that increased levels of deforestation impacted their populations. The familiar theme of persecution coupled with this habitat loss ultimately led to its extinction by the mid-19th century in most of the UK. They hung on in Scotland until about 1900. The increased use of pesticides throughout the first half of the 20th century once again ensured that any attempts are recovery were thwarted.

Symond's Yat
Symonds Yat in the Wye Valley is one of the best places to see goshawks in the UK

Their return wasn’t entirely natural, however. Goshawks began breeding here again thanks to a number of deliberate and accidental releases from falconry collections. These began in the 1960s. The bird has long been popular with falconers. TH White famously wrote about his attempts to train one in The Goshawk and more recently, Helen Macdonald wrote about trying to emulate White in her book H is for Hawk. It seems many modern keepers wanted to help them return to the UK’s forests. There are now just over 400 pairs in the UK, best seen in early spring as they display over the forest canopy. Incredibly, on the Continent the bird now lives in a number of cities including Berlin, Hamburg and Moscow. Colonisation began in the late 1980s and early 1990s and these quintessential ghosts of the forest now live in some extremely urban settings.

White-tailed Eagles

We might think of the white-tailed eagle as a bird of remote mountain and loch. But they were once widespread across the UK, including on the south coast. The last English pair bred in 1780 at Culver Cliff on the Isle of Wight. I grew up on the Island and find it incredible that, but for persecution, I may have seen this huge bird regularly as a child. The last breeding record for Scotland was in 1916. The last UK bird was shot in Shetland just two years later. Like most raptors, the prevailing attitude towards white-tailed eagles during the 19th century was that they were vermin. The resulting persecution, via shooting and poisoning, was the main cause of their extinction, although habitat loss also played a part.

White-tailed eagle
This immature white-tailed eagle lacks the adult’s white tail

Reintroduction programmes began tentatively in the late 1960s but got going in earnest with Norwegian birds brought to Rum between 1975 and 1985. The first successful breeding occurred in 1985 and birds were also reintroduced to Fife from 2007. There are now about 100 pairs in Scotland. The Roy Dennis Foundation, involved in so many of our raptor reintroduction projects, is now managing a similar scheme in partnership with Forestry England on the Isle of Wight. The site has the right amount of shallow water for fishing, and cliffs and trees for nesting. The project hopes birds will not only spread to other parts of England, but also bolster populations in France, Ireland and the Netherlands.

A similar scheme planned for Norfolk was cancelled in 2021 due to opposition from landowners. White-tailed eagles are our largest raptors. Their long, broad wings have earned them the nickname, ‘flying barn doors’. Only adults have the white tail.

Red Kites

Red kites have had very mixed fortunes in the UK over the last thousand years. In Medieval England they were regarded as valuable street cleaners and protected accordingly. They would have flown over most of our towns and cities. For a medium-sized raptor, red kites are surprisingly poor hunters and much prefer scavenging carrion. However, humans began to mistakenly class them a threat to livestock and game. By the Tudor period it was being persecuted along with other raptors. By 1871, it was extinct in England and by 1879 in Scotland. The only surviving birds clung on in the remotest sub-prime habitat in central Wales. The unsuitability of this last refuge’s habitat, along with the rabbit population crash due to myxomatosis in the 1950s meant that this tiny population was unable to spread out to better territory even when persecution eased.

Red kite
Red kites have distinctive forked tails

Once again, the 1970s’ chemical bans help pave the way for recovery. Birds were finally able to produce enough young to spread into better habitat in Wales and numbers in the principality began to climb. By 2003, there were an estimated 400 pairs in Wales. However, there were still not enough birds to expand into England. Consequently, the RSPB in partnership with the Nature Conservancy Council (now Natural England) began a reintroduction programme in 1989.

Over the next few years, conservationists released birds from Spain in the Chilterns, East Midlands, Yorkshire and the north-east. At the same time, Swedish and German birds were released in four areas of Scotland. The projects have been an enormous success, with all the populations now self-sustaining. On the Continent, however, they are facing steep declines. Kites are stunning raptors with forked tails, grey heads and russet colouration. Their characteristic drifting flight is now common over motorways where they search for roadkill.

Golden Eagles

My last resurgent raptor’s recovery isn’t quite as clear-cut as that of the other birds included here. Inevitably, the golden eagle’s population decline in the 19th century was down to persecution and changes in land use. Sheep farmers and gamekeepers alike targeted it to protect their stock. As the bird became rarer, egg collectors also impacted birds. The last Welsh golden eagle died in 1850. It was already extinct in England by that point, although one lone pair returned to the Lake District and bred between 1969 and 2003. The species hung on in remoter parts of Scotland, but numbers were much reduced. They were handicapped further in the mid-20th century by the afore-mentioned build-up of chemicals in the food chain. Interestingly, researchers have analysed placenames to suggest that core non-Scottish eagle ranges were the Lake District, Pennines and Wales historically.

Golden eagle
Golden eagles actually have a large global range

The slow recovery of birds in Scotland over the last 50 years was possible due to chemical bans and an increase in conservation work. The results are nowhere near as conclusive as for some of our other raptors, though. Although there are now over 400 pairs in Scotland, they have not been successful enough to expand into more than two-thirds of their historic range. Numbers outside the Highlands have remained stubbornly low, with only three pairs present in southern Scotland for some time.

The South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project is the response to this situation. Over the last five years, the scheme has reared and released 20 chicks and 7 subadults, translocated from the Highlands and Outer Hebrides respectively. The project is a reinforcement rather than a reintroduction as eagles were never extinct in the region. Birds will hopefully also spread into northern England. This is our second largest bird of prey. Its wings are less square than the white-tailed eagle’s and it has a longer tail. In the UK, their main prey is mountain hares and rabbits, although they will also scavenge.

Raptors in the Balance

Despite all these success stories for our raptors, there are still huge concerns for all our birds of prey. Although now illegal, persecution is still a major threat to all of them. The RSPB’s latest report on raptor persecution is extremely worrying, with seemingly no let up in incidences of trapping, shooting and poisoning. The report reveals there were 108 recorded incidents in 2021; and these are only the discovered cases. Over 50% of events occurred in connection with land managed for gamebirds. All of the above species are still killed intentionally with alarming regularity.

As well as deliberate harm, there is also the accidental killing of birds by legal poisons laid for mammals such as rats. There is also concern that we are entering a second Silent Spring era. Although DDT and related chemicals have long been banned, scientists are finding increasing amounts of heavy metals such as lead and mercury in the birds they test. As with man-made pesticides, these concentrate higher up the food chain and so our apex predators are most at risk. These could well lead to long term health issues and reduced reproduction success. Is this a ticking timebomb for our raptors?

Kestrel
Kestrels are no longer as common a feature of our motorways

And not all our raptors have recovered from the lows of the past. Hen harriers remain one of our rarest raptors due to their preference for moorland and the resulting conflict with the gamebird industry. Tagged birds have disappeared in mysterious circumstances on numerous occasions. Kestrels were once our commonest raptor, regularly seen hovering by the side of our roads and over farmland. However, they are now declining. Although the losses are moderate at present, there are fears that this could herald something more serious. Whether habitat loss, a change in food abundance or something else is to blame isn’t yet known. Their smaller relative the merlin has faced even bigger losses.

All this goes to show that while we should rightly celebrate our resurgent raptors, we cannot afford to be complacent. Those hard-fought gains could, tragically, be mere blips if we take our eye off the ball.

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