Forty years after the osprey returned to colonise Scotland, the fish-eating bird of prey has bred so successfully that it is set to extend its range over the border to England, where it has been extinct for more than a century.
From the single pair that nested at Loch Garten, near Aviemore, in 1954, the Scottish population of this spectacular hawk has increased steadily to reach 100 pairs, which last year produced 150 young.
The Scottish total is now large enough for conservationists to begin to reintroduce the bird to England.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is examining plans put forward by Anglian Water to take several chicks and young birds from the Highlands and rear them in specially constructed eyries at Rutland Water in Leicestershire. The birds often stop at the reservoir on their long summer migration north from Senegal and Gambia to Scotland for the breeding season. So far none has settled permanently.
The last recorded pair of ospreys in England nested in Somerset in 1842. By 1850 marksmen and egg collectors had hunted the bird out of existence. Anglian Water is confident the Leicestershire project will reverse the trend, enabling people south of the border to witness the bird swooping down on to lakes and rivers to grab trout and salmon.
John McAngus, a spokesman for the Huntingdon-based company, said: "For the past 20 years ospreys have been coming to our reservoir at Rutland Water, staying a while, eating a few of our trout and then heading north to Scotland. They are magnificent, unforgettable birds and we would like more of them here more of the time, and, hopefully, further afield."
RSPB officials welcome the plan but they say more research is needed before it can be approved. "Anything which encourages more ospreys to nest is a good thing and it may be time to give the species a helping hand south of the border," Chris Harbard, an RSPB spokesman, said. "But we need to be confident that the birds are likely to survive long-term in the Rutland area, that the scheme will not affect the Scottish populationand that the ospreys will not pose a threat to other local land users, especially farmers."
If the five-year Rutland experiment proves successful, ornithologists predict ospreys will begin nesting across the Midlands and the North early next century. Richard Thaxton, who has run the RSPB's osprey centre at Loch Garten for 10 years, said: "There are plenty of good nesting sites in the Kielder Forest in Northumberland and in Cumbria, which lie alongside suitable fishing habitats. It is now simply a matter of waiting."
As RSPB officials prepare for the English experiment, they stress that efforts to protect Scottish ospreys will continue. Earlier this year officials introduced 24-hour surveillance and put up razor wire at nesting sites, following attacks on eyries in which nine chicks were killed - the highest number for years.
"Although the population is stable and expanding towards England, it does not mean that all risks to the osprey have disappeared," Mr Harbard said. "We are determined to take on the egg collectors and vandals to safeguard the long-term future of the species."Reuse content