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The UK's raptor population is booming

Updated: May 20, 2020

Image: Jacob Spinks

The UK’s bird of prey population is now well above the 250,000 mark for the first time in over 100 years. This is a huge testament to the success of recent conservation work in Britain, and the many different ongoing schemes to support their breeding and general numbers.

Recent photographs in national press of the reintroduction of white-tailed (or sea) eagles on the west coast of Scotland and more recently on the Isle of Wight brought a great smile to many of those lucky enough to see these great birds in flight.

Red kites in the Chilterns have positively flourished since the reintroduction scheme of the early 90s – in fact this is often referred to as one of the greatest conservation success stories of the 20th century. Their populations have now extended as far as north Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as almost everywhere in between.

And the osprey, which was registered extinct in the UK in the 1900s, but returned to Scotland in the 1950s and since then, with vast amounts of human help, has flourished to an estimated 300 breeding pairs Great Britain.

The birds mentioned above all had their populations boosted with ‘new blood’ from abroad. Other species, however, are doing well of their own accord. Buzzards, for example, have bred very successfully in the last thirty years, with well over 80,000 breeding pairs in the country.

Black kites – close cousins of the red kites that are now a common sight across much of the UK – have been spotted soaring over Kent and Suffolk, and it’s predicted that they’ll breed here within the next ten years. Controversially for some, peregrine falcons are doing well enough that Natural England have allowed falconers to capture six chicks from wild British falcons, in a bid to establish a British peregrine falcon stud book. It is also why the UK is the number one destination for raptors being stolen and smuggled out of the country to fulfil orders from the Middle East.

Overall, there are over a quarter of a million birds of prey in the UK; the largest total number for centuries. All this is rarely spoken about, however. Why?

Perhaps it suits some people’s narratives for all raptors to be seen as struggling; fighting against the odds to secure their future existence. But it’s not the truth. Yes, raptors have had a hard time of it in the past, largely down to historic persecution, changes in land use and encroaching human habitats on their nesting areas. The relationship between nature and man is a delicate balancing act that is juggled all over the world. Nowhere was this emphasised more starkly than in the recent footage of an Osprey being crushed by a fast-moving truck on the M6 in Lancashire whilst hunting in the River Ribble. It had been hoped it would be the first Osprey to nest in the area for centuries.

Despite what some activists would have you believe, incidents of illegal raptor killing remain extraordinarily low, particularly when compared to rural crime more generally such as livestock and vehicle theft, fly tipping and illegal coursing.

Bird of prey numbers in the British Isles are a remarkably success story and should be lauded by all as such. It is time everyone recognised that.


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