“Surely that’s not one of ours?” I whispered disbelievingly to my colleague Jason Fathers, as we stood transfixed, gazing into a sky dashed with the first light of an August morning. We were rooted to the spot, watching as directly above us a gigantic white and brown bird soared and danced on the air, skilfully dodging the vicious dives of a closely pursuing peregrine falcon. It looked quite as though it had never known anything but life on the wing.
As the relentless chase continued out of sight, we resumed on the path which we had abandoned in our amazement, this time with renewed haste. We reached the site where Tim Mackrill was already monitoring just in time to see the larger bird return to settle on top of the pens which it had only minutes before vacated, and which for the past three weeks it had called home… We had just had the privilege of witnessing the truly remarkable first flight of a juvenile osprey!
Such a sight has not been observed in Dorset for centuries. Before being driven to local extinction by their human neighbours, through persecution and exile, osprey bred here annually during the summer months. Indeed, they were once nationally widespread, inhabiting the surrounding counties in equal proportion, as well as others across the south coast of England and beyond. The current British population on the other hand, though now showing positive recovery, still resides for the most part in Scotland and (thanks largely to earlier translocations to Rutland Water) some confined regions of the Midlands and Wales.
Their visits to Dorset are now brief, most birds only pausing to feed and rest whilst on migration. But that doesn’t change the fact that they belong here. They are an integral part of the local ecosystem: an apex predator; a piscivorous generalist which helps to maintain ecological stability and diversity in our waters. This is why, during the summer of 2017, we began the first translocation of osprey chicks from Scotland to Poole Harbour. Over the course of five years we will move a total of 60 chicks from successful Scottish nests, and raise them in pens, at a private site on the shores of the world’s second largest natural harbour.
I was privileged enough to watch the first eight of these very young pioneers grow and develop over the course of this summer. I hope that we have given them the very best chance of survival (we certainly fed them more fish than they could shake a beak at, so to speak) but we can by no means take all of the credit. The extent of their capabilities which arise purely on instinct continues to astound me. Nothing filled me with greater joy than to watch as they taught themselves to dive for fish in the harbour’s many marshy inlets, or wheeled overhead, circling as though to map out the landscape in their minds, almost as if reminding themselves: “this is what home looks like”.
Such incredible displays could not have felt more natural anywhere else. To restore the identity of this species to ‘local’ once more, is not only to restore the balance in our natural systems, but to bring the joy of witnessing such magical moments to everyone. I would deem this a right, not a privilege.
It is true, that one of the key reasons for our undertaking this project is to help restore, to its previous range, a species which I – among many others – believe deserves to survive and thrive as it once did. But rebuilding our own local populations has not been the only motivation behind giving the British osprey population a helping hand in expanding its breeding range. It is our hope that, through natural dispersal, our birds will provide a link with populations in continental Europe. Western populations in particular, such as those in France, are very sparsely distributed and continue to struggle to bounce back from centuries of persecution. The mixing which our birds can facilitate will allow gene flow between the populations, boosting resilience on both a local and species-wide scale.
Our chicks are currently in Africa, after undertaking the most extraordinary of first migrations: thousands of kilometres navigated with no guidance and after only a few weeks of flying practice under their wings! Ospreys are very faithful to the sites where they were raised, so if and when our birds return to the UK as adults – in maybe as few as two or three years time – many will do so to the place which to them means home: the shores of Poole Harbour. And I for one will be welcoming them back as joyfully as my neighbours, for I see in them as in myself, the same sense of belonging to this wonderful local patch.