WELCOME HOME, OSPREYS
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
“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.
REWILD AND RENEW
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.
“IT FEELS LIKE A SPECIAL PRIVILEGE, TO WITNESS THE RETURN OF A MAGNIFICENT SPECIES”
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