Poole Harbour Ospreys

History of Ospreys in the UK and the Significance of Poole Harbour

Ospreys are the second-most widespread bird of prey in the world, behind the Peregrine Falcon, residing on every continent apart from Antarctica. Previously widespread throughout Europe, Ospreys were historically persecuted until their numbers were extremely low, resulting in their extinction as a breeding bird in England in 1840. Like many other birds of prey, they were targeted to protect livestock, but their population was also impacted through egg-collecting. Despite remaining in Scotland for a while longer, their population reached so low that they were no longer recognised as a breeding bird, with the last known pair breeding at Loch Loyne in 1916.

Fortunately, Ospreys made a natural comeback in Scotland, with a known pair setting up a territory and nest at Loch Garten near Inverness in 1954. Their population slowly increased, with help from nest protection and public engagement initiatives, including “Operation Osprey” led by George Waterson, then Director of RSPB Scotland, at Loch Garten. Despite these positive steps, populations remained low as egg-collection was still prevalent, especially as the Osprey eggs had now increased rarity. The population growth was further slowed through pesticide use, including DDT, which affected the quality of the eggs laid by the Ospreys. Only after harsher consequences for egg-collection and the ban on DDT in 1972 did the Osprey population in Scotland properly make a comeback, and by the 1990s there were more than 60 pairs.

Photo by Simon Kidner

The nesting behaviours of Ospreys means that they have a very slow dispersal rate. As there were no known nests in England even 40 years after the pair settled at Loch Garten, in 1996 they were reintroduced through a translocation project at Rutland Water. 5 years after the project began, Ospreys returned as a breeding bird to England and spread across the Lake District and Wales. After years of attempting to restore a breeding population to the South Coast naturally, the Poole Harbour Osprey Reintroduction Project was initiated to help spread their population further, with the hope of eventually linking the populations between Rutland, Wales and France.

Although there isn’t a breeding population currently in Dorset, Poole Harbour already hosts high numbers of Ospreys passing through from northern nests on migration in spring and autumn. They can spend anywhere between a few hours and a few weeks in the harbour, stopping off to make the most of the abundant fishing opportunities. Historically, Ospreys were locally referred to as “Mullet Hawks” due to the high number of grey mullet, an ideal meal for the birds, in the harbour.

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