Rapture for raptors
With a breeding pair of hobbies, a visiting osprey and sparrowhawks, kestrels, buzzards and red kites, restoration work at Panshanger Park is drawing in stunning birds of prey
Panshanger Park’s remarkable bird success story
The past 12 months have been outstanding for birds of prey in Herts, as two rare species – hobby and osprey – have been spotted at Panshanger Park on the western edge of Hertford. A pair of hobbies successfully bred on the 400-hectare historic site, raising three chicks, and in September an adult osprey visited the park for a prolonged stay of two weeks.
Healthy populations of predators at the top of food webs have long been recognised as indicators of the wellbeing of ecosystems. As well as demonstrating the quality of the restoration work in the park being undertaken by building materials company Tarmac, these raptors show how rare species can coexist alongside carefully-managed, sustainable recreational activities.
Panshanger Park, owned by Tarmac, was a sand and gravel quarry that is being progressively restored to a country park and nature reserve. The company works in partnership with Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust (HMWT) to manage the site for both wildlife and people to enjoy, meticulously planning restoration work for nature conservation, agriculture and recreation.
In 2017, Tarmac and the wildlife trust received top honours at the Mineral Product Association’s Restoration and Biodiversity Awards at the Royal Society in London. The partnership received the prestigious Cooper-Heyman Cup in recognition of its work to sensitively restore and manage Panshanger Park’s Grade II* listed landscape.
The hobby is a migratory falcon that visits southern Britain to breed before returning to subSaharan Africa for the winter. They feed on dragonflies and damselflies, as well as smaller birds including martins and swallows, catching their prey in mid-air and, with insect prey, feeding on the wing.
There are around 2,000 pairs of hobbies in the UK and the health of the expanding
population has been linked to the increase in their dragonfly prey around restored gravel pits like those being created at Panshanger Park. Their presence is a reflection of the high quality habitats that have been created and allowed to establish and flourish.
Following consultation with species protection experts, a series of ‘hobby watch’ events was hosted by Tarmac and HMWT so the public could view the birds through telescopes and learn more about them and the protection they require. More than 100 people attended these events and everyone, including the youngest watchers, were able to see the birds.
‘They are a joy to watch – capable of rapid bursts of speed and breathtaking turns as they hunt,’ said HMWT’s Murray Brown, the park’s people and wildlife officer. ‘We were thrilled to have a family of hobbies at Panshanger.’
Ospreys have been stopping off at Panshanger Park for several years as they follow their long migration routes between northern Europe and tropical Africa. This year, an adult bird stayed for a fortnight affording birdwatchers, photographers and visitors amazing views of this remarkable bird of prey from the bespoke viewing platform.
‘The sight of a fishing osprey plunging feet first into a lake to catch large fish in its speciallyadapted talons, has to rank among the most awe-inspiring of wildlife experiences in Britain. We’re so pleased that this spectacle could be enjoyed by so many people,’ said Murray.
The visit by the osprey is just one example of how the quarry restoration work is creating new habitat that, with careful management, can work sideby-side with recreational use. Some of the lakes created at Panshanger Park through this restoration are stocked with brown and rainbow trout by a fly fishing club. Before mineral extraction, these areas were grassland. The anglers appreciate that their sport is enriched by fishing alongside breeding birds, such as reed, sedge and Cetti’s warblers and little and great crested grebes. Kingfishers, grey wagtails and little egrets are also frequently seen.
‘The sight of a fishing osprey plunging feet first into a lake is one of the most aweinspiring’
Restored sand and gravel quarries are perfect sanctuaries for a whole host of flora and fauna and there can be little doubt that the habitat creation work of companies like Tarmac is greatly benefitting wildlife in the UK. Lakes and rivers in such areas may be surrounded by land that is not extensively used for commercial agriculture and so escape excessive inputs of artificial nutrients. At Panshanger Park, landscape designer Humphry Repton’s sinuous Broadwater is complemented by other water bodies created after gravel extraction, providing ideal hunting grounds for hobbies and ospreys.
The submerged aquatic plants, marginal species and reedbeds also provide habitats for water voles, amphibians and wintering wildfowl and the associated invertebrate life provides feeding opportunities for birds, bats and dragonflies. Panshanger Park is home to nearly half of the UK’s species of dragonflies and damselflies and is the second richest site in Hertfordshire for these stunning insects.
Landscapes like Panshanger Park provide critical havens for wildlife and act as stepping stones for species to move through a wider countryside dominated by intensively-farmed or developed areas, thereby connecting them to other suitable habitats.
While most of the park has open access and a series of managed permissive rights of way covering 15km, it’s vital that some undisturbed refuges are left protected so that sensitive wildlife can flourish, osprey can rest and refuel on their migrations, and the fantastic hobby can raise its young in safety.
Birds and other wildlife draw in more than 100,000 visitors a year to the park
One of the parent hobby at Panshanger – with a dragonfly in its talons. Hobby can eat on the wing
The hobby chicks, raised in a protected area