In our series about people with a passion for a species, we ask the wildlife artist ATM why he cares so much about kestrels?
Why are kestrels special?
Because I trained them when I was growing up in Rochdale. I was 14 when I bought my first kestrel from a lad at school for £5. He hadn’t trained it so I read books about falconry – the best one was Jack Mavrogordato’s A Hawk for the Bush, which was an inspiration for me. He had such respect for birds of prey and the complicated and difficult art of training them.
What did training involve?
It was a long process of stage-by-stage increases in trust between the bird and me. I made all my own falconry equipment from leather: hoods and jesses; leashes and lures. You need to get a bird trained to the point where it will fly 30 yards to your fist, then you know it’s ready to fly free. The first time it did was extremely nerve-racking.
I’d get up every morning around 6am before school and fly the kestrel, swinging a lure round my head and snatching it away at the last moment, as the bird would swoosh overhead, arcing and diving after the food.
Why are kestrel numbers falling?
Kestrels hovering along the roadside used to be a common sight, but they’re now a rarity. It must be due to lack of habitat, plus farmers using more pesticides and rodenticides. We’ve also lost meadows, field margins and other unkempt areas. When I was growing up we used to go to an area simply known as ‘The Long Grass’ that was perfect hunting terrain for kestrels – it was full of voles. Our constant need for tidiness means we don’t allow nature to grow wild. So key habitats and the whole web of life, all the plants and creatures that depend on each other, just aren’t there.
What do you want your artwork to achieve?
I paint endangered species, mostly in urban areas, to reach people who may not have a Left: ATM collaborated with Karen Francesca to create this kestrel and meadow painting in West London. connection with nature. I recently painted a kestrel in Acton, West London, on the side of emergency housing made of shipping containers stacked four-high in a big estate. The bird is shown hovering above a wildflower meadow. We’ve also made planters for growing vegetables and herbs, insect houses and sown seeds to make real wildflower meadows around the tower blocks, as part of a community project working with the local school and youth groups. This kind of thing could have a huge impact if it was repeated in lots of other places.
How much time to you have to spend birdwatching?
Not as much as I’d like, but I’ve just been to Arne in Dorset where I heard the wonderful sound of nightjars. I grew up wandering the valleys and woods around Rochdale and I love wild places and birdsong.
Seeing a kestrel today is a magical sight. I love their assured flight and watching them hovering above a field. They remind me of those sunny days of my youth and the freedom of exploring wild places.
A kestrel is a magical sight. I love their assured flight and the way they hover.