Who, 30 years ago, would have guessed that Britain’s commonest bird of prey would be the buzzard, that peregrines would nest in many English cities (including London) and that nesting red kites would outnumber avocets? The change in the status of our birds of prey has been astonishing and, you can be sure, beyond the wildest dreams of the RSPB. Raptors are thriving in 21st-century Britain. Almost every species has a rising population, and the tolerant attitude of most landowners and gamekeepers means that the future is brighter for birds of prey in the UK than anywhere else in Europe.

Despite this, the RSPB continues to release misleading stories to the press suggesting that many of our raptors are on the brink of extinction and threatened by the illegal activities of rogue gamekeepers. Under “stop the killing now” on its website, the red kite, hen harrier, peregrine, goshawk and golden and white-tailed eagles are depicted as “under threat” yet all but the hen harrier have growing populations. Ironically, the kestrel – for decades our commonest raptor – is the only species with a seriously declining population; figures from the British Trust for Ornithology show a 31% fall in numbers since 1970. In contrast, buzzards have increased so much (up 500% between 1970 and 2007) that they now breed in every county in mainland Britain, nesting in areas where they haven’t done so for 150 years or more.

The BTO chose the buzzard as the cover bird for ‘The New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland 1988-1991‘. Its distribution map showed a striking east-west divide, with scarcely a breeding pair in central, eastern and southern England. The next atlas, fieldwork for which is well over halfway, will show a remarkable colonisation of almost all of mainland Britain.

RARE BIRD VS RARE BIRD

According to the last atlas, “there seems no reason why the buzzard should not reoccupy much more of its former breeding range” [it was once widespread throughout Britain]. In fact, much of central and eastern England contains apparently suitable habitat but it is possible that persecution by gamekeepers is still a limiting factor. If it was then it certainly isn’t now, and most gamekeepers are finding that living with buzzards is not a problem. While buzzards may be relatively easy to get on with, the same can hardly be said of the goshawk. We know very little about the past status of this powerful raptor but according to the authoritative Birds in England, “it is generally assumed that the species was formerly widespread but was brought to extinction by intense persecution in the 18th and early 19th century”. What we do know is that the current UK population of around 400 pairs is descended almost entirely from birds imported for falconry in the Sixties and Seventies.

Few gamekeepers share the birdwatchers’ enthusiasm for this spectacular species, and plenty of conservationists wish they didn’t have to contend with it either. Goshawks are major predators of red squirrels and equally bad news for black grouse, as lekking males are an easy target. They are a limiting factor in the black grouse recovery programme in the north-east of England. The black grouse is a UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) species, so it receives the highest attention in the government’s conservation planning. Intriguingly, no raptors are on the UK BAP list.

What to do when one rare bird kills another is a problem for conservationists. Some years ago, when peregrines were a lot less numerous, a pair on Anglesey had a devastating impact on the island’s roseate tern colony, causing the birds eventually to move to Ireland. They have not returned. Peregrines are now more numerous than at any time in the past 200 years. City-centre cathedrals are popular nesting sites. It would be good to think that urban peregrines survive on feral pigeons but they take an extraordinary variety of migratory birds, from corncrakes to woodcock.

REINTRODUCTIONS

While the peregrine’s recovery may have been remarkable, and the buzzard’s unprecedented, the re-establishment of the red kite as a breeding bird in England and Scotland has been the greatest conservation success story of the past 20 years. Unrelenting persecution had almost wiped out our red kites. Seventy years ago there was only a tiny remnant population left in Wales, with just one breeding female. In 1989 English Nature in the Chilterns and the RSPB on the Black Isle started ambitious reintroduction schemes, using young birds imported from Spain and Sweden respectively. The birds flourished, producing a sufficient surplus of young for further reintroduction projects in Northampton-shire, Yorkshire and Northumberland.

The Scottish birds have done less well, with around 4% found poisoned annually. However, further release sites in Galloway, central Scotland and Aberdeen have helped re-establish red kites as Scottish breeding birds; before the reintroductions started, the last recorded nest was in Glen Garry in 1917. In Wales the native population is now booming, with an estimated 600 breeding pairs last season. Red kites are opportunistic feeders and, though they will take the occasional partridge poult or young pheasant, their principal diet is carrion. Few keepers regard them as a problem: they provide an efficient disposal service for trapped squirrels and rats, while stalkers in the Chilterns now leave the deer grallochs for the kites to clear up.

The reintroduction programme for the white-tailed eagle took far longer, for these birds seldom breed before they are six or seven years old. The project started with the release of birds on Rhum in 1975 but successful breeding didn’t take place until 1985. Now there are around 40 pairs in the Western Isles, where they are a major tourist attraction. The local crofters are less enthusiastic and have rejected a Scottish Natural Heritage study which found they do not take lambs. For many years Scotland’s golden eagle population has re-mained at around 425 breeding pairs, possibly the optimum number for the breeding territories available, but there are conservationists who argue that such a healthy population should be producing a surplus of young birds establishing new territories in areas like the Lake District. Young birds taken from Scottish nests have been used for a successful re-introduction project in Ireland’s Glenveagh National Park. In contrast to the eagles, Scottish ospreys continue to expand, and now almost every suitable loch has a breeding pair, while additional eyries have been established in the Lake District and, this past season, Kielder Forest.

When I was in my teens the sparrowhawk was a genuine rarity. Generations of keepers had waged war on it with little effect, but organochlorine pesticides almost wiped it out in a decade. Numbers started to recover in the Seventies, and by the mid Nineties this was once again a widespread breeding bird. However, the trend between 1994 and 2007 shows a 12% decline, a period when most of its principal prey species – blackbird, song thrush, robin, blue tit, great tit, chaffinch and greenfinch – have increased in numbers.

In 1970 I helped monitor Britain’s only breeding pair of marsh harriers at Minsmere in Suffolk. No one then anticipated this bird’s remarkable comeback. Current estimates suggest over 400 breeding females – male marsh harriers are often polygamous – and numbers are growing by 10% a year. Such an increase is worrying many managers of nature reserves, for marsh harriers invariably wipe out local populations of ground-nesting birds like lapwings, and they are not good news for water voles or grey partridges either. The majority of England’s marsh harriers are still re-stricted to East Anglia and Kent. This past season a pair of hen harriers nested in south-east England, the first for almost two centuries. However, most of Britain’s breeding hen harriers are restricted to Scotland. A century ago they survived in numbers only on Orkney but they have recolonised much of mainland Scotland, where today there are around 700 pairs. Intriguingly, numbers have fallen on Orkney; a decline in unmanaged grassland is thought to be the reason.

MEDIA MANIPULATION

The absence of breeding harriers from the majority of grouse moors in north-east England is, according to Natural England, because of continued persecution by gamekeepers. In December 2008 it published a report ‘A future for the hen harrier in England?’ It noted that “between 2002-2008, the comparatively tiny area of Bowland in Lancashire accounted for over two thirds of all the 127 hen-harrier breeding attempts recorded by Natural England as part of its intensive monitoring programme.” Throughout the rest of England, only 19 breeding attempts were recorded on grouse moors, in spite of the suitability of the habitat. There’s no doubt that the hen harrier remains the problem bird for both grouse-moor managers and conservationists, and any solution requires considerable compromise from both sides. Some years ago the headkeeper on a shoot on the South Downs remarked to me that he liked seeing birds of prey over his ground, as it showed everyone the healthy environment he was managing. The fact that the word endangered can no longer be used for our birds of prey is confirmation that such an attitude is far from unusual. Frustratingly, the role that landowners and gamekeepers have played in ensuring the recovery of our raptor population goes largely unacknowledged, yet another reminder that the media prefer bad news stories, a fact the RSPB cynically exploits.

Breeding population: Most recent status in pairs in early 1970s population.

Species estimates

Buzzard 10,000 61,000 Increasing fast, now breeds in every county

Honey buzzard 12 33-69 Increasing, almost certainly under-recorded

Sparrowhawk 12,000 41,000 Small but marked decline in recent years

Goshawk 30 410 Increasing

Golden eagle 300 442 Stable, persecution may be limiting increase

White-tailed eagle 0 42 Slow but steady increase

Hen harrier 300 749 Stable in Scotland, barely holding its own in England and Wales

Marsh harrier 2 363-429 Increasing fast and expanding from East Anglian strongholds

Montagu’s harrier 1 13-17 Stable, but on northern edge of range

Osprey 16 175 Increasing and now breeding in England and Wales

Red Kite 26 1,200 Increasing rapidly, helped by various reintroduction projects

Peregrine 375 1,492 After substantial increase population now stable

(with decreases in Scotland, continued increases in England)

Kestrel 100,000 35,400 Serious decline, numbers still falling

Merlin 700 1,330 Stable, numbers difficult to estimate accurately

Hobby 100 2,200 Major and unexplained increase