History of British Ospreys

Ospreys would once have been widespread throughout most of Britain. During the middle ages almost every big house and monastic establishment had a fishpond and being a Catholic country, eating meat was forbidden on Fridays.

These fishponds, as they do now, attracted this magnificent fish-eating bird of prey leading to many of them being hunted and killed. Later on in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the remaining pairs of British ospreys were severely persecuted by gamekeepers, egg collectors, and trophy hunters. With the additional pressures of habitat loss during this time also, by 1916 they had become totally extinct as a breeding species in Britain. The last known pair nested in 1916 on an island on Loch Loyne. 

 

One of the last nests to survive before egg collectors finally put an end to osprey breeding at Loch-en Eilan in the early 1900s

 

In 1954 an osprey pair was reported to have nested at Loch Garten in the Scottish Highlands. They are believed to have successfully raised two chicks that year. They returned to their eyrie in 1955, but persecution by egg thieves proved to be a big problem still. A small group of RSPB staff and volunteers attempted to protect the nest, but despite their valiant efforts it was not until 1959 that young ospreys were raised in the area once more. 

Life was difficult for ospreys in the 20th century

 

Since those early days numbers have slowly increased and there are now c270 breeding pairs of osprey in Scotland. 

The Scottish osprey population steadily grew following the intense persecution in the 1950s and 60s and by 1992, for the first time in over two centuries, more than 100 young ospreys were reared in Britain, albeit confined to Scotland.

Ospreys breed in loose colonies and the majority of the nests tended to be in the Strathspey region. Male ospreys have a tendency to return to areas close to their original natal sites to breed themselves once they are old enough to reproduce, usually at two to three years old. In one research study from the 1980's, this ‘natal philopatry’ was so high that 80% of males settled within six miles of their natal site and none dispersed further than 30 miles.

A Glaslyn offspring, Blue 80 (right), returns to his natal nest as a three year-old in 2015. His mother (left) is still the breeding female.                                                              © Chris Parry

 

During the 1980's and 90's migrating ospreys were regularly seen stopping off at Rutland Water, in the East Midlands. In an aim to encourage the spread of ospreys throughout the British Isles, the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, in collaboration with Anglian Water, began a translocation project at Rutland Water Nature Reserve in 1996. During each year between 1996 and 2001 up to twelve Scottish osprey chicks were taken from nests containing three young (only one chick was taken from each clutch). These youngsters were then released from pens to fledge at Rutland. Out of 64 birds released in the original programme, at least thirteen are known to have returned to Britain, ten of these to Rutland. One 'superosprey', White 03(97) returned to breed for an incredible 15 years. Sadly his breeding attempt in 2015 was unsuccessful and he failed to return in 2016. White 03 is Nora's father and Glesni's uncle.

The translocation project has subsequently proved critical to the establishment of the Welsh breeding population.

A Scottish male osprey translocated to Rutland in 1998, ringed Ochre 11. This bird would return to the UK as an adult in 2004 and become the first male osprey to breed in Wales for many centuries.                   © Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust

By today, ospreys are well established both in England and Wales and it is surely just a matter of time before they colonise Ireland once again.

There are around 20 pairs in England (Rutland, Cumbria, Northumberland) and four in Wales, making a total UK population of around 300 pairs. There are many more non-breeding birds of course, continually on the look out for suitable nests and partners.

A six-year-old non-breeding female, Blue 24, visits the Dyfi nest in March 2016 looking for a mate.