Holes in the map, part 7: Ospreys, goshawks & kites

Part 7 of our series about the Lake District’s missing wildlife, written by Haweswater Site Manager Lee Schofield, strikes a cheerier tone and focuses on three avian conservation success stories.

Back in the summer I took a walk with my kids to the summit of Dodd. Soaking up the views over Bassenthwaite, we spotted a big black and white bird flying on angled wings over the water below. At first, we thought that maybe it was a large gull, but then all of sudden it changed its trajectory and took a steeply angled plunge and splashed onto the lake’s surface. I scrabbled for my binoculars as I realised what it was – an osprey. With a better view, I could make out the strong dark stripe over its eye, and as it lifted from the surface, it had a good-sized fish clutched in its powerful talons, soon to be food for hungry chicks.

All the species I’ve written about so far in this series are ones which have either become completely extinct in Cumbria over the course of the last few centuries, or perilously close to it. However, there are some whose fortunes have been turned around and have returned from extinction. So, let’s strike a more positive tone and celebrate some of these conservation success stories.

Targeted by egg and skin collectors, ospreys were wiped out as a breeding bird in England by 1840 and in Scotland by 1916. They are a migratory species, spending our cold winters in the sunnier climes of West Africa. From time to time, ospreys were seen passing through the UK, but for decades, they all carried on towards to Scandinavia. In 1954, a pioneering pair took a shine to the Highlands, and began building a gigantic stick nest in the pine forest on the shore of Loch Garten. The RSPB whirred into action, setting up round the clock nest protection to ensure that nobody could steal their eggs. Ospreys have continued to breed at Loch Garten almost every year since.

For the next 45 years, osprey numbers in Scotland grew. In 2001, their population expanded further, with a pair successfully breeding at Bassenthwaite, providing a much-needed reason to be cheerful in a year otherwise dominated by the foot and mouth outbreak. The Lake District Osprey Project, a partnership between the RSPB, the Lake District National Park Authority and the Forestry Commission helped to protect the ospreys, and established viewpoints with staff and volunteers on hand. Hundreds of thousands of visitors have come to pay homage over the years, and studies have shown that these tourists have contributed hundreds of thousands of pounds of income to the local tourist economy.

About the same size as osprey, but considerably more secretive, goshawks have a similar story of rebirth. With strongly striped barrel-chests, like a sparrowhawk on steroids, goshawks are hunters of the forest, fast and agile on their broad wings as they weave between trees in pursuit of other birds and mammals. Partly due to the decline of their woodland habitat, but also because of sustained persecution, goshawks became extinct in the UK sometime before the turn of the twentieth century. Since then, they’ve been making a slow and stealthy comeback.

Helen MacDonald’s moving account of training a goshawk in H is for Hawk gives an insight into this vilified bird’s fierce and distinctive character. Goshawks have always had prestige among falconers, and it is them we have to thank for the goshawk’s return. Over the course of decades, goshawks were imported from Europe and released back into the British countryside, both intentionally and as a result of escapes. Nobody quite knows how many birds were released and where, but slowly and surely, populations have re-established across the country. It’s believed that there are upwards of 300 pairs now breeding, a proportion of which in the forests of Cumbria.

Red kites also suffered at our hands, having been persecuted to the point of extinction in both England and Scotland in the late 1800s. A tiny population held on in Wales, reaching a low point of less than 20 pairs, all of which were found to have descended from the same female. Red kites are well named, their sharply angled tails and auburn, black and white feathers slicing the air. They are mainly a scavenging species and were historically valued as natural refuse collectors. However, over time, this behaviour earned them a reputation as dirty birds and by the time of Shakespeare, their name had become an insult – King Lear refers to his daughter Goneril as a detested kite.

The tiny Welsh population, because of its small gene pool struggled to spread, so from the late 80s, reintroduction efforts began. Releasing birds imported from Sweden, Spain and Germany in multiple locations from the Cotswolds to the Highlands has brought red kites back well and truly back from the brink. The RSPB considers that they are now so common that there’s no need to survey them every year.

The most recent release of red kites started in 2010 at Grizedale Forest in South Cumbria. The kites here got off to a slow start, held back some local illegal persecution, but their numbers are now on the rise. With healthy populations just north of the border in Dumfries and Galloway and another in Northumberland, the prospects for red kites in Cumbria are good.

There are a scattering of red kite place names across Cumbria, including a Glede Howe close to Swindale, part of the land we look after at Haweswater. We spot red kites most years at Haweswater and I’m confident that it will only be a matter of time before they set up home in our woods again.

It’s easy to feel gloomy about wildlife and the environment these days, with a seemingly constant deluge of bad news. Goshawks returned as a result of covert releases, red kites though a well organised, multi-partner, state-sanctioned reintroduction programme and ospreys recolonised naturally once we stopped persecuting them. All three are powerful symbols of our improved attitude towards nature and reminders that if we put our minds to it, we can turn the fate of our struggling wildlife around.

Read our full Holes in the Map series in our blog.