History of British Ospreys
Ospreys would once have been widespread throughout most of Britain. During the middle ages almost every big house and monastic establishment had a fishpond and being a Catholic country, eating meat was forbidden on Fridays. These fishponds, as they do now, attracted this magnificent fish-eating bird of prey leading to many of them being hunted and killed. Later on in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the remaining pairs of British ospreys were severely persecuted by gamekeepers, egg collectors, and trophy hunters. With the additional pressures of habitat loss during this time also, by 1916 they had become totally extinct as a breeding species in Britain. The last known pair nested in 1916 on an island on Loch Loyne.
In 1954 an osprey pair was reported to have nested at Loch Garten in the Scottish Highlands. They are believed to have successfully raised two chicks that year. They returned to their eyrie in 1955, but persecution by egg thieves proved to be a big problem still. A small group of RSPB staff and volunteers attempted to protect the nest, but despite their valiant efforts it was not until 1959 that young ospreys were raised in the area once more. Since those early days numbers have slowly increased and there are now over 200 breeding pairs of osprey in Scotland.
The Scottish osprey population steadily grew and by 1992, for the first time in over two centuries, more than 100 young ospreys were reared in Britain, albeit confined to Scotland. Ospreys breed in loose colonies and the majority of the nests tended to be in the Strathspey region. Male ospreys have a tendency to return to areas close to their original natal sites to breed themselves once they are old enough to reproduce, usually at two to three years old. In one research study from the 1980's, this ‘natal philopatry’ was so high that 80% of males settled within six miles of their natal site and none dispersed further than 30 miles.
Female osprey eating a trout on a perch at Rutland Water (Lagoon 4) © Emyr Evans
During the 1980's and 90's migrating ospreys were regularly seen stopping off at Rutland Water, in the East Midlands. In an aim to encourage the spread of ospreys throughout the British Isles, the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust in colaboration with Anglian Water began a translocation project at Rutland Water Nature Reserve in 1996. During each year between 1996 and 2001 up to twelve Scottish osprey chicks were taken from nests containing three young (only one chick was taken from each clutch). These youngsters were then released from pens to fledge at Rutland. Out of sixty-four birds released in the original programme; at least thirteen are known to have returned to Britain, ten of these to Rutland. The translocation project has subsequently proved critical to the establishment of the Welsh breeding population.