A new home for ospreys under threat

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The Independent Online
THE RELEASE of 12 young ospreys on a Midlands reservoir is prompting hopes that the spectacular fish-eating hawk will return to breed in England.

On Thursday night, a group of conservationists set loose the last of the 12 Scottish ospreys on the shores of Rutland Water - a site they believe is a perfect breeding ground. The birds had been brought from nests in the Scottish Highlands. There, after a painstaking breeding programme started in 1954, there are now 120 pairs.

It is the third year in succession that young Scottish birds have been released, in the hope that they will imprint the new surroundings on their memories before their autumn migration to West Africa. The idea is that when they eventually return, after three, four or five years, they will nest at Rutland Water.

The giant reservoir, 23 miles in circumference, had long been known as a stopping-off place for ospreys on their spring journey back to the Highlands from Senegal and The Gambia. In 1994 a pair stayed the whole summer, but failed to breed.

So Tim Appleton, the warden of Rutland Water nature reserve, called in Scotland's leading osprey expert, Roy Dennis, to advise on how to attract the passing birds permanently. More perches? Artificial nests?

Mr Dennis, a former head of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Northern Scotland and a former warden of the Loch Garten reserve, suggested something far more radical: translocation. Taking young birds from nests elsewhere and releasing them in new areas has proved outstandingly successful in the United States. Anglian Water, the reservoir's owners, were persuaded it could be done at Rutland, and agreed to finance the project.

The six-week-old birds are taken singly from Scottish nests where there must be at least three chicks, and brought to artificial nests, in pens on a 15ft- high platform, at the edge of a wood on Rutland's western end.

For the next month or so the project manager, Helen Dixon, feeds the juveniles on rainbow trout bought from a fish farm and getting to know them intimately, before they are released. They then spend another month flying around the area, learning their spectacular fishing dive but for the most part feeding on trout put out on platforms. Then one day, at the end of August or the beginning of September, the inborn urge comes, and south they go.

The project has a payback time of perhaps five years, the period it may take for a juvenile osprey to return from Africa to nest for the first time. Four birds went south in 1996; eight last year; 12 will go this year. A nest at Rutland might be possible in 1999, but the realistic expectation is for English ospreys in the millennium year.

There are more than 80 volunteers helping the osprey project and everyone involved thrills to the sight of these striking raptors with their 5ft wingspan.

"They're fantastic birds," said Helen Dixon. "They're so handsome, their colours are so striking, chocolate brown above and snow white beneath, especially when the sun catches them. But it's in flight they're most exciting, especially when they're plunging to fish. They soar and they dive and they're acrobatic and they take your breath away. They're majestic fliers. You never get tired of it."

Rutland Water nature reserve will play host next weekend to the British Birdwatching Fair, which is rapidly becoming the biggest social event in the twitchers' calendar, with up to 20,000 enthusiasts expected.