Once ex­tinct in the UK, these spec­tac­u­lar birds are now thriv­ing in many ar­eas. Ge­orge Mon­biot will never for­get his first sight­ing of one in Wales

Countryfile Magazine - - Ed­i­tor’s Let­ter - Ge­orge Mon­biot

“The re­turn of the os­prey sym­bol­ises the great po­ten­tial for re-es­tab­lish­ing species that have be­come ex­tinct,” says Ge­orge

Ihad hauled my kayak up the beach and was pulling off my wet­suit when the phone went. It was my friend Ritchie Tas­sell. “There’s some­thing I want you to see. How soon can you get here?” If Ritchie, who had seen al­most ev­ery­thing, thought it was worth my while, it would be.

In the marshes close to Dyfi Junc­tion, a tiny rail­way sta­tion in mid-Wales, the sedge war­blers churred and buzzed. Swal­lows dipped over the ditches and flick­ered over the heads of the sheep. Ritchie had lent me a pair of binoc­u­lars. We waited. “There he is!” At that dis­tance, to my in­ex­pert eye, it could have been a buz­zard or a black-backed gull. But as it flapped up the es­tu­ary, with a strangely awk­ward beat, I no­ticed two things. First, that some­thing was sway­ing and plan­ing be­neath it. Se­condly that it was too dark for a gull; too white for a buz­zard. It took me a

mo­ment... “Je­sus H Christ on a bike!” “That’s what I said. More or less,” replied Ritchie. “He’s been here for three days. If he set­tles, it’ll be the first time since the 17th cen­tury.”

The bird was head­ing to­wards us. About 20 yards be­fore it reached the track, it turned and flapped slowly past in pro­file. It was car­ry­ing a large flat­fish. It landed on a fen­ce­post and started tear­ing at the fish.


Ritchie was, in­di­rectly, re­spon­si­ble. He had rea­soned that the os­preys breed­ing in Scot­land would mi­grate along this coast on their way to and from Africa, paus­ing to re­fuel in the es­tu­ar­ies and lakes. He had also guessed that the young birds would be look­ing for ter­ri­tory. He found the tallest spruce tree on his side of the val­ley, roped him­self up, cut off the top and built a wooden plat­form 50 feet from the ground. He cov­ered it in twigs and splat­tered white paint over it to look like drop­pings.

Across the val­ley, from his cot­tage be­side the es­tu­ary, an­other keen nat­u­ral­ist had watched these prepa­ra­tions. It was not long be­fore he had per­suaded the lo­cal wildlife trust to build a plat­form of its own: it planted a tele­graph pole be­side the rail­way track, and nailed a sheet of ply­wood across the top.

“It was a no-brainer,” said Ritchie. “The os­prey could choose a nice lit­tle res­i­dence deep in the woods, in the top of a tree over­look­ing the es­tu­ary, or an ex­posed pole right next to the rail­way line. Of course the lit­tle sod chose the Wildlife Trust’s ef­fort. Not that I’m bit­ter or any­thing.”

I was only half lis­ten­ing. I was still strug­gling to take in what I had just seen. My heart pounded. I was filled with wild yearn­ing: of the kind that used to af­flict me when I woke from that peren­nial pread­o­les­cent dream of float­ing down the stairs, my feet a few inches above the car­pet.


To­day, os­preys on the Dyfi es­tu­ary are a com­mon sight. For the past six sum­mers, thou­sands of vis­i­tors have come to the Cors Dyfi na­ture re­serve to watch them on the nest­ing plat­form (they bred suc­cess­fully for the first time in 2011). You can get a closer view from the train, as it slows down while ap­proach­ing Dyfi Junc­tion (trav­el­ling from east to west). The Dyfi os­preys have be­come a sta­ple of the Spring­watch se­ries.

But, early in 2008, this was an ex­cep­tional sight­ing. To have wit­nessed the re­turn of a mag­nif­i­cent species, once com­mon across Britain, but per­se­cuted by game­keep­ers and egg col­lec­tors un­til it be­came ex­tinct in 1916, feels like a spe­cial priv­i­lege.

Now os­preys can be watched at Loch Garten, Caerlave­rock and Loch of the Lowes in Scot­land; Bassen­th­waite, Kielder and Rut­land Wa­ter in Eng­land; Glaslyn (at Pont Croe­sor) in Wales and in sev­eral other parts of Britain. There are at least 200 breed­ing pairs.

The re­turn of the os­prey sym­bol­ises to me the great po­ten­tial for re-es­tab­lish­ing species that have be­come ex­tinct in this coun­try. Al­ready, white-tailed ea­gles are spread­ing across west­ern Scot­land. Cranes have been re­leased in Som­er­set. Spoon­bills are breed­ing in Nor­folk and red kites, once ex­tinct al­most ev­ery­where, are now a com­mon sight in many parts.

I would love to see these suc­cesses repli­cated. Among my top can­di­dates are pel­i­cans, storks, beavers, boar, lynx, wolves, stur­geon, bur­bot, grey whales and blue stag bee­tles, all once na­tive to Britain. Like the os­prey, all these species can en­rich and en­chant our lives. I hope I’m still alive when the call comes through to watch the first rewil­ded wolves.


Gotcha: an os­prey (Pan­dion hali­ae­tus) with its catch. Ospreys dive from up to 30m above the wa­ter to seize their prey – fish make up 99% of their diet

Ge­orge Mon­biot is the au­thor of Feral: Search­ing for En­chant­ment on the Fron­tiers of Rewilding. He is help­ing to set up a new or­gan­i­sa­tion called Rewilding Bri­tain.

LEFT The Dyfi es­tu­ary in Ceredi­gion, where ospreys are now flour­ish­ing BE­LOW A pair of breed­ing ospreys on a nest­ing plat­form

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