It is a well-known fact that the recovery of the Osprey in the UK is a real conservation success story. Following centuries of persecution, the Scottish population has risen from a single pair in 1954, to more than 270 pairs today. Encouraged by the provision of artificial nest, a few pairs have spread to northern England, and, more significantly still, the Osprey geography of Britain has been completely changed thanks to the Rutland Osprey Project. Breeding populations are now well-established in central England and Wales as a direct result of our translocation project at Rutland Water. But its not just in Britain that Ospreys are on the increase. Last weekend I was an invited speaker at an international symposium on the Osprey in France; and I went away thinking that the future is looking very bright.
One of the most pleasing aspects of the Rutland translocation is that it has led to similar projects elsewhere in Europe. It was great to hear from Roberto Muriel and Andrea Sforzi that Ospreys are now breeding in Spain and Italy, thanks to translocation projects. This summer 9 pairs raised a total of 15 chicks in southern Spain and, in Italy, a single breeding pair were successful for the third successive summer. Elsewhere, a translocation project involving Swedish and Finnish Ospreys began in eastern Portugal in 2011 and, earlier this year, Roy Dennis translocated 12 Scottish Ospreys to the Basque Country in northern Spain. Like in Britain, these projects are restoring Ospreys to areas where they have been lost; helping them to spread through southern Europe. When you look at a distribution map of European Ospreys, there is still very much a northern bias, with the stronghold in Scandinavia. However, this should not be the case and these translocation projects are helping to change that.
As you might expect, the people running these projects are faced with the same questions that we were repeatedly (and still are) asked at Rutland Water. Shouldn’t we let the birds spread naturally? Shouldn’t the money be spend on more ‘worthy’ projects. Well, in a word, no! And here’s why. Undoubtedly the most inspiring talk of the weekend was given by Roy Dennis. Roy has been working with Ospreys in Scotland since the early 1960s and was instrumental, along with Tim Appleton, in getting the Rutland project underway. Roy and Tim have always been advocates of pro-active conservation and they saw a unique opportunity at Rutland Water to do something that would have a lasting legacy, not just in the UK, but further a field, too. Yes we could have waited another century for Ospreys to reach central England naturally (the annual rate of spread of the Scottish population is 4km per year), but who knows what may have happened in the intervening years? Furthermore, thousands of people, old and young, would not have been able to enjoy the spectacular views of breeding Ospreys that you can now get at Rutland Water and Cors Dyfi, if Roy and Tim, with the help of Anglian Water hadn’t got the project off the ground. There is a scientific justification too. Roy’s research in Scotland has shown that in ‘full-up’ areas of north-eastern Scotland where Ospreys are at their carrying capacity, young birds have to wait much longer to breed. However, by establishing populations further south, where there is less competition for nest sites and mates, the birds have the opportunity to breed at a younger age; and the UK breeding population increases at a faster rate. At Rutland Water in 2003, a two year-old translocated female raised two chicks, and, this past summer, two three-year-olds reared a family of three at the same site. Had these birds tried to breed in Scotland, it is likely to have been a very different story. Just look at Roy’s four year-old satellite-tagged Osprey, Rothiemurchus, who still hasn’t settled down to breed north of the border.
Then there is the matter of worthiness. There are still many people in the UK who feel that conservation effort should be focused on rarer, more threatened species than the Osprey. The reality, though, is that the ‘Osprey money’,simply isn’t available to other projects. Charismatic species, like the Osprey, have the potential to attract funding that may not otherwise end up in conservation. As Roy said on Saturday, wealthy funders are just as likely to end up putting their money into a Formula 1 racing team than conservation, so if we can find a conservation project that excites them – and what excites people more than Ospreys – then, surely, that can only be a good thing? If it is Ospreys that act as the hook to get these people interested in conservation, then who knows what they may be prepared to fund in the future?
Feeling suitably inspired by what Roy had said, I continued on theme by discussing the Osprey Flyways Project – the project that myself and the team set-up after our first visit to West Africa in 2011. Over the past three years we have been working with five Gambian schools to provide a wildlife education experience that they wouldn’t get under the usual teaching curriculum. Using Ospreys as the flagship species they have been learning about the wildlife around them, and the need to protect it. Millions of migratory birds make the 3000 mile journey from northern Europe to west Africa each winter, but few could inspire interest among these young people, like the Ospreys can. If we can encourage young people in Africa to take an interest in wildlife and conservation as a result of the migratory journeys of Ospreys, then many other species will benefit. The same is true across the whole of the migratory range; and it is this theory that underpins the other aspect of the Osprey Flyways Project. By using Ospreys as the flagship species we are linking schools along the migratory flyway, enabling the students to learn about bird migration and conservation in a new and exciting way. A great example is the music video made by staff and children at Montorre and Urretxindorra schools in the Basque Country. I finished my talk by showing this video and asking whether, after watching it, the audience felt Osprey conservation was a worthy cause. I don’t think I need to tell you the answer.
And so what of the future? With Ospreys now increasing in most parts of Europe, the future looks bright. We have shown that translocation is the best way of restoring the birds to their former range, and Roy and I firmly believe that it should be easier for these projects to get the necessary licences. We have now refined the translocation techniques, and can run projects in an extremely cost-effective way. There are now around 35 pairs of Ospreys breeding in mainland France and small-scale translocation projects would be an excellent way to encourage the population to spread away from its stronghold in Orleans Forest. It was discussed how several individual Ospreys have attempted to breed in isolated areas, well away from Orleans. In each case, these breeding attempts have come to nothing because other birds have been reluctant to join them. This would not be the case with translocations. Small populations could be established easily in areas where productivity is likely to be high. The same is true of East Anglia and the south coast of England and several parts of Spain. Surely this is just sensible, pro-active conservation?
So, although we are doing well, there is still much to do. As Roberto Muriel explained, there are well over 1000 reservoirs in Spain. If each reservoir supported two or three pairs of breeding Ospreys, then you realise that the current 9 pairs, is only the tip of the iceberg. Likewise, whilst the UK population is now approaching 300 breeding pairs, there is sufficient habitat for the population to increase to six or seven times that. At a time when the recent State of Nature Report showed that many species are in decline, surely we should do everything we can to encourage the continued spread of Ospreys. As Roy said in his talk, rarity is a failure of conservation. Let’s make sure Ospreys do not become rare once again.