The remarkable return of ospreys

| 29th May 2019
Ospreys
RSPB
The RSPB is celebrating the remarkable return of ospreys, thanks to dedicated conservationists.

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Ospreys were lost as breeding birds from the UK early in the twentieth century, following years of persecution. These fish-eating birds of prey were deliberately killed because they had been taking too many trout and salmon, and also because the Victorians had developed a taste for dramatic-looking stuffed wildlife displays in their houses.

As their numbers plummeted, osprey eggs became even more desirable to egg collectors. The raiding of eyries for these highly collectable prizes further hastened the birds’ decline.

The last ospreys nested in England in 1840 and managed to hold on in Scotland until 1916. Between the two World Wars there were occasional reports of breeding ospreys, but no proof of their return emerged.

Early conservation 

Ospreys still passed through the UK on migration between Scandinavia and West Africa, Southern Spain and Portugal, even though they weren't nesting here.

The RSPB and other conservation-minded landowners knew there was potential for them to return. A close watch was kept on likely nest sites after a pair successfully raised two chicks in Strathspey in 1954, including around Loch Garten, part of the Seafield Estate.

Here there were many of the lofty pines that ospreys are fond of nesting on, and plenty of decent sized fish in the nearby lochs and the River Spey. Messages were relayed between potential nesting sites on bicycle, with updates telegraphed to RSPB HQ.

After the successful breeding in 1954, things were looking up, but over the next few years the tentative osprey return hit several setbacks.

The egg collectors were back in the Highlands and now posing a serious threat to the ospreys trying to breed in Scotland. A pair settling at Loch Garten in 1955 deserted their nest and it seems likely their eggs had been stolen. The same happened again in 1956, and the following year one osprey was shot, and its mate failed to find a new partner.

Determined conservationists

Fortunately, some very determined conservationists were even more relentless in protecting the birds than the egg collectors were in destroying their chances to recolonise.

George Waterson, the RSPB's Scotland representative, was such a keen ornithologist that during World War II he'd continued his fascination with birdlife even when held as a Prisoner of War. Here he was imprisoned and worked with Peter Conder, who would later become RSPB Director, and other notable ornithologists.

George, along with RSPB Secretary  Philip Brown and their colleagues would draw on the steely determination honed during those terrible years to ensure there was enough protection for returning ospreys.

They were helped by, among others, Lt Col Grant of Rothiemurchus, neighbouring the Seafield Estate, who provided equipment and manpower to help spot potential nesting sites. Gradually the operation grew from pushbikes, to a motorbike with a sidecar, to four-wheeled vehicles.

In 1958, when the ospreys settled on the nest south of Loch Garten, the 24-hour nest watch began in earnest, from a cramped, make-shift hide. But disaster struck, when despite the nest-watchers giving chase, the nest was raided one misty night by an egg-collector and the osprey eggs were substituted with chicken eggs daubed in boot-polish.

Tourist attraction

The culprit was never caught, and the team were devastated. After this loss, the ospreys built a second nest, known as a “frustration eyrie” at the current Loch Garten nest site, but the 1958 season had failed.

The 1959 season saw the nest-watchers even more determined to succeed in protecting the returning ospreys and much to everyone’s delight, the hard work paid off when three chicks were hatched at the Loch Garten nest.

The RSPB then took the brave decision to open the nest to the public, instead of keeping it secret, and thereby gain support for the ospreys. The plan worked, and people flocked from across the country to see the UK’s only osprey family from a special “Observation Post”.  

Incredibly, that first summer, 14,000 people came to watch Loch Garten's ospreys! Over the next few years, the Loch Garten ospreys grew in popularity and became a must-visit tourist attraction in Strathspey – numbers of visitors peaked at around 90,000 over the five month season in the 1970s.

Numbers of osprey pairs nesting in the UK grew very slowly as ospreys take a long time to recolonise areas naturally.

Ospreys today 

The now banned insecticide DDT had a negative effect on many birds of prey like ospreys, finding its way into their bodies through their food and causing females to lay eggs with incredibly thin shells, which broke easily on the nest.

By 1976 there were still only 14 pairs here but that number would climb to 71 fifteen years later. By 2001 there were 158 pairs, mainly in Scotland, and the first ospreys would nest in England for 160 years.

A pair settled in the Lake District while a reintroduction programme saw ospreys breeding at Rutland Water.

There are now around 250 pairs of ospreys in the UK. Sadly, this year, the Loch Garten nest has not been successful as neither long-standing female ‘EJ’, nor her new partner from 2018, ‘George’, returned, but we anticipate a new pair will claim the nest for their own this year, ready to return and breed in 2020.

The best places to see ospreys this summer are around lakes and rivers. These include the RSPB's Loch of Kinnordy and Loch Lomond, Leicester & Rutland Wildlife Trust's Rutland Water nature reserve, and the Glaslyn Osprey Project near Porthmadog in Gwynedd, Wales. 

This Article 

This article is based on a press release from the RSPB. 

Image: Chris Gomersall.

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