What is behind the catastrophic decline of our hovering raptor?

It used to be that buzzards and falcons were struggling, while kestrels flourished. Now the situation has reversed and this proud bird faces extinction


One of the hottest theatre tickets in London at the moment is the all-male performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which stars Mark Rylance as Olivia and Stephen Fry as Malvolio. Not a few theatregoers will doubtless head for the Apollo in Shaftsbury Avenue especially to witness Mr Fry: Malvolio, the lonely, pompous, puritanical steward of Lady Olivia’s household, is the figure the play revolves around, and has attracted many a comic thespian, from Ken Dodd to Richard Briers; by all accounts Mr Fry does the role full justice.

The play’s unusually gripping nature, you may remember, stems from the fact that the insufferable Malvolio is the victim of a practical joke, and deservedly so, but it is a caper which goes too far; in the end it ain’t funny any more, and the critic John Wain once memorably said that in this comedy “a cold wind is blowing from the tragedies”.

The joke is to make Malvolio believe Olivia his boss is in love with him, by leaving a forged letter for him to find; and once he has found it, he is dumbfounded and overwhelmed by the possibilities, while the hidden but onlooking practical jokers can scarcely believe how completely he has been hoodwinked by the document written, in fact, by the maidservant Maria:


FABIAN: What dish o’ poison has she dressed him!

SIR TOBY BELCH: And with what wing the staniel checks at it!


Look for a moment at the second line. It will almost certainly go over the heads of everyone watching Stephen Fry, bound up in his sudden dream of love and riches, not least because of the word staniel. It’s a word now lost to us. It’s easy to think it’s just some archaic Elizabethan insult, like knave or varlet, perhaps related to spaniel; but although it is indeed archaic, it has a specific meaning.

Staniel is the old English word for the kestrel, the hovering falcon, while the word checks is a precise term from falconry, meaning hovers. Shakespeare is giving us a brief but vivid image of Malvolio hovering over every word in this letter which offers him a future beyond his most ambitious dreams.

Staniel is long forgotten now; our modern English name for the bird comes from the French crécerelle, and I was put in mind of all this recently on a weekend trip to Normandy, where I was delighted to find kestrels hovering all over the place, not least above motorway verges: on a 50-mile stretch of the A28 which runs between Alençon and Rouen, I counted 18 of them.

Motorway twitching

Twenty years ago, this was also a typical sight on the M1, M4 and M6, so much so that the kestrel became nicknamed the motorway falcon; the long, undisturbed grass verges, even with heavy traffic thundering past, had turned out to be perfect hunting grounds for the voles and mice on which kestrels feed.

But today it would be a rare occurrence indeed to spot 18 kestrels in 50 miles of the M1, for the bird is increasingly in trouble in Britain, with its numbers dropping by 32 per cent in the years between 1995 and 2010, and a staggering 36 per cent decline just between 2008 and 2009.

In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when birds of prey such as peregrine falcons and buzzards were struggling because of pesticide poisoning and persecution, kestrels were flourishing; but now the situation is reversed, and they are the most threatened of our common raptors.

No one really knows why, although the best guess is a decline in their small mammal prey. There is also the possibility, so far uninvestigated, that the striking resurgence of buzzards and peregrines may have affected them: kestrels bred on Chichester Cathedral for decades until peregrines ousted them. Whatever the reason, the disappearance from much of the countryside of the windhover, as Gerard Manley Hopkins called the bird in his famous poem, is a great loss; I grew up watching the marvel of this falcon staying in one place in mid-air, as, quite obviously, did the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, more than 400 years ago.


React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Inside Sales - OTE to £45,000

£25000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are a leading supplier of bu...

Recruitment Genius: Installation Engineer - Driveway

£28000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This innovative, fast growing f...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Project Manager - Technical

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is looking for a Jun...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne  

I'm against Right-to-Buy because no government should force a charity to sell its assets

Bob Kerslake

Charles Kennedy: Pragmatic, shrewd, and tactically brilliant

Sean O'Grady
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral