Three cheers for beavers

I’ve just heard that the beaver is to be protected in our country. That’s welcome news from the Minister, but oh dear how long that took. And that’s only a first step, the next is to return the species to all suitable wetlands, to aid the future of our planet. A week ago young people were reminding us adults that the future of a living earth is in serious danger, yet how quickly that goes off the headlines. The young will need to be more demanding to secure their future. It is an unrelenting struggle to effect meaningful change. Many ecologists have tried over the last century but after an initial breakthrough the old ways of politics and power continue. So this time, young people, keep pushing! The beaver should encourage you to note that yesterday’s total opposition can change to a recognition of its value.

Last summer, I wrote that I visited an osprey nest in Strathspey and ringed the single chick, the first young there after a gap of eight years. The eyrie is atop an ancient Scots pine growing in a bog. I remembered on earlier visits having to jump ditches and wade through swampy areas to reach the tree, but now everywhere is dry and the patches of open water I remembered have all vegetated over. This was such a special forest bog where the ospreys had as neighbours nesting teal and very rare green sandpipers. This forest has every sort of conservation designation possible but it has lost a lot of its value through the uncontrolled growth of excess vegetation, due to lack of big herbivores, originally auroch, moose and beaver. It was clear to me that the immediate remedy for such a special area would be the return of beavers. In a few years their activities would bring those forest bogs and pools back to life, as well as opening up and rewetting the other low-lying parts of the forest. They would slow down the small river and create even more wetlands. I firmly believe that the Scottish government’s refusal to allow beavers back in all these wet woodlands is seriously detrimental to wildlife conservation and our international obligations.

Earlier in the year I was asked to address the annual conference of Forestry Commission England at the University of Exeter and give my views on where they should be heading ecologically after their centenary year of 2019. One of the delegates was Dr Richard Brazier, of the university, whose team had carried out detailed scientific studies on beavers which had been placed in a wet woodland reserve in north Devon. Their results were very impressive and showed how the beavers had changed the ecosystem by building a chain of dams that slowed down the small river coming from the adjacent farmland. Water flows had been ameliorated as water was held in the dams, sediments and chemicals had been deposited within the site. The water coming out of the wood was much purified and the wildlife benefits for other species outstanding. In fact, the 14 dams held 1,000 cubic metres of water and had captured 100 tons of silt. I remember walking there nearly ten years before with Derek Gow, who is the pioneer and champion of the return of the beaver to the UK as a water engineer and ecological improver. Just about everything we talked about then has been proved by these studies and others.

Similar results have been obtained by PhD researchers on beavers and their impacts in the River Tay catchment in Scotland, yet we are still experiencing resistance to the return of the species to the UK. It saddens me greatly that board members and staff of the then newly created Scottish Natural Heritage discussed the need to reintroduce the beaver in the early 1990s and here we are, 25 years later, still dithering about full-scale recovery. Then, our interest was very much about the ecological and wildlife benefits they would bring. Now, though, with an ever-increasing recognition that we must restore natural processes for the benefit of people as well as wildlife, we have the evidence that beavers can help alleviate downstream flooding, maintain water in streams in times of drought, slow down the run-off loss of soils and help prevent agricultural chemicals from pouring down rivers and into lochs, estuaries and the sea. You would think it’s a no-brainer. Sadly, that’s not how it works at present, but it has to change. That’s another area where our young people  can encourage adults to see sense before it’s too late.

Photo by Laurie Campbell


News of older Ospreys

This week we received an email from José Manuel Sayago and Teresa Ramírez of the Odiel Natural Park in Andalucia bringing us news of one of our Scottish ospreys – Yellow 7Y. She was collected in July 2005 from a nest in Easter Ross in the Scottish Highlands and translocated to southern Spain as part of the reintroduction project. She returned to Andalucia in 2007 and a year later was the first one to pair up and build a nest on a derelict electricity pylon in the Odiel marshes. In 2009 she bred with her German translocated male and reared three young – the first successful translocated pair. Teresa writes “ This year, 2018, she has reared two more young with her German mate. They have reared young every year – a total of 17 young”.  One of her young in 2009 has also been breeding on the Odiel Marshes since 2012. It’s always very interesting to hear of individual ospreys which are super-successful.

Yellow 7Y has reared 17 young at her nest at Odiel Marshes in Andalucia since first breeding in 2008 (photo by A Ventas).

Another super-survivor of an osprey was also reported recently – Green SK in Portugal by Jorge Safara of the Portuguese osprey recovery project. She was originally ringed as a juvenile at a nest in Nairnshire, northern Scotland on 10th July 2002 by Roy Dennis (youngest of a brood of three). Roy subsequently caught her after fledging (on 24th August that year) and fitted her with a satellite transmitter. This showed that she wintered in Portugal after an extremely hazardous and life-threatening first migration during which she was blown out into the Atlantic.

On 15th September she left the North Devon and after missing landfall in Brittany and then missing the coast in NW Spain she was swept out over the Atlantic Ocean by strong easterly winds. After an amazing journey of nearly 3000 kilometres, flying non-stop for nearly 60 hours, she was blown ashore near Odemira in southern Portugal. On 21 September she moved 85 kms NE to Vale de Gaio reservoir near Torrao, where she must have wintered.

SK’s first migration in Portugal in 2002 involved an incredible non-stop flight of almost 3000 km after being blown out into the Atlantic

This was an early transmitter and once the battery ran out we received no more news until she was found breeding near Aberfoyle by David Anderson in 2005. She moved to another location and continued to breed there until at least 2011, but there have been no recent sightings in summer. She is probably breeding in another new location in Scotland because Jorge photographed her catching a fish at Odivelas reservoir on 16th October, which is just 20 km south-west of the last satellite location that Roy received from the transmitter in 2002. Earlier in March 2018 he observed her at another reservoir. At 16 years of age she is clearly an osprey that winters inland in Portugal and now breeds somewhere in Scotland. A true survivor after one of the most dangerous starts to life for any osprey.

SK was photographed by Jorge Safara at Odivelas reservoir

33-year-old Golden Eagle – longest recorded ringed golden eagle in the world.

Way back in 1985, my diary for 30th June records that I was monitoring golden eagles in the north Inverness glens with my daughter Rona, home from Uni. We climbed to an eyrie near Cannich, which I had monitored for many years, and ringed a single eaglet – ZZ0005. I also attached two small yellow wing tags but the eagle was never identified alive. In fact like most ringed eagles nothing more was heard of it – until out-of-the-blue, I received two emails yesterday. One was from the BTO ringing scheme and the other from Gabriela Peniche, a PhD researcher on golden eagle health at the Dick Vet at Edinburgh University.

The remains of this eagle had been found near Loch Assynt in Sutherland on the 10th August and sent to the lab. It was thought it may have been dead for about 6 weeks and a male. The cause of death was unknown, but there was bruising in the skull and a suggestion of starvation. This is a ‘safe’ area for eagles, free from illegal persecution. My view is that a likely end to a very old breeding adult, of either sex, is to be defeated or killed during a challenge by a young adult to take over a nesting site. That’s how nature works for long-lived raptors.

The BTO Ringing Scheme longevity data gives the present longest recorded life of a ringed golden eagle as just over 16 years – a Kielder Forest chick 29th June 1991 found dead in the Scottish Borders 7th August 2007. In some ways this bird’s death stimulated the South of Scotland Golden Eagle recovery project started this year. In Europe, the Euring database records longevity records for two Swedish ringed golden eagles at 31 years and 32 years, while 23 years is the oldest record in the United States. So ZZ0005 at 33 years appears to be the oldest recorded ringed golden eagle in the wild in the world. There is a record of a captive one reaching 46 years, while very expert fieldwork on breeding pairs of golden eagles on the Isle of Skye by my old friends Kate Nellist and Ken Crane gave an annual adult survival rate of 97.5% suggesting that some adults could reach 40 years of age.

From its recovery location, it may have been the local breeding adult male living in a home-range some 90 kilometres north of its natal site. I know those local eyries from my eagle fieldwork in the 1970s and 1980s. By 2010 Doug Mainland had ringed 18 young at this location since 1990 (when ZZ0005 was five years old). On 17th June 2010 I visited the eyrie with Doug, Derek Spencer and Lorcan O’Toole, who collected one young for the Irish Reintroduction Project. The other eaglet, a male, was satellite tagged and named Suilven: to read more click here. There’s just a chance that ZZ0005 may have been its male parent. This eaglet ranged widely when young, even briefly visiting Skye but when sub-adult returned to an area just east of its natal nest. In the spring of 2015, when Suilven was 5 years old the transmitter fell off (as they are meant to do) and we guess he may still live and breed in that area of Sutherland. It’s lovely to think what a couple of emails can do and how worthwhile was that hike up the mountain in 1985. Bird ringing at its best.

Poole Harbour translocation – year two

Our planning and preparation for the second year of Poole Harbour Osprey Project, a partnership between the Foundation, Birds of Poole Harbour and Wildlife Windows, started at the end of winter when we checked nests that looked fragile the previous year, and others that had been damaged by winter storms. In early March 2018 we rebuilt two that were no longer usable and it was pleasing that both were subsequently used by ospreys on their return. In April we started our regular monitoring of about 50 sites in Moray, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey, and in northern Sutherland and Caithness. This year more than usual of the adult birds were either late or missing, almost certainly due to bad weather in Morocco and Iberia during migration.

Two nests were interfered with by pine martens taking them over in winter, with one of them becoming the den for young martens. Those that did breed had a good season because of the excellent weather, but this year there was a marked contrast between the normal broods and very late chicks due to the delay or loss of breeding adults. In late June our monitoring is aimed at identifying which nests have young, how many and what age. Last summer was the first year of the Poole Harbour translocation and so we only collected eight young to get the project started. 2017 was also the last year of the five-year project to reintroduce ospreys to the Basque Country of Spain and we were delighted this spring that two of the males had attracted females which laid eggs. One failed during incubation but the other pair have young close to fledging.

Checking and ringing a brood of three young ospreys. One of this brood was subsequently translocated to Poole (photo Emily Joáchim)

Two young Ospreys ready for translocation to Poole. The birds are moved when they are five-six weeks old.

Our licence from Scottish Natural Heritage allowed us to collect up to 14 chicks this year, and so the next task was to  plan how and when to collect them from nests containing two or three young throughout our study area, liaising with owners of private land holding osprey nests or on Forestry Commission forests. Our team includes two expert tree climbers, Ian and Fraser, while Emily Joáchim again took on the feeding of the young in special pens at my home. The chicks are fed fresh trout from Rothiemurchus Fishery. We aim to collect the birds in as short a time as possible, but our first nest was a disappointment as it contained only one young. Thankfully Monday and Tuesday 9th – 10th July turned out to be excellent days, with great help in particular from Alan Campbell of the Moray district of the Forestry Commission on Monday. By Tuesday lunchtime we had reached our total, with all chicks in excellent condition. This summer Brittany Maxted came north from Poole to learn this end of the project, and on Tuesday evening Tim drove the young ospreys south in special travelling boxes to a stop-over with Barry Dore and Jakkie Tunnicliffe in Staffordshire, where Brittany and Tim fed the chicks fresh trout for the next stage of the journey.

With temperatures in southern England soaring, Tim and Brittany set-off on the final leg to Poole early on Wednesday morning to avoid the worst of the heat. Thankfully the roads were clear and they arrived at the release pens on private land adjacent to Poole Harbour shortly before 1 pm. Jason Fathers of Wildlife Windows had been busy constructing two new release pens to go with the three that we used last year, and we had already decided on the allocation for each pen, with the birds divided into groups of two or three of similar age according to wing length. The largest birds with the longest wings were places in pen 1 and the smallest in pen 5. This should ensure that we can release the birds in stages in a few weeks’ time according to when they are ready.

Having placed the birds in the relevant pens the team retreated to the monitoring caravan where Brittany and the group of volunteers monitor the birds via CCTV images. We were pleased that within a few hours all had fed on fresh fish kindly provided by local distributor Sea Fresh, and were settling in well. In fact the oldest two birds, 013 and 014 were already wing flapping strongly.

Paul Morton feeding the birds. Fish is placed into the pens through a flap at the rear in order to minimise human contact.

Over the past few days the birds have continued to be fed three times per day by the team. Fresh fish is cut up into thumbnail sized pieces and then placed on a paper plate that is passed through a hatch in the rear of each pen. This ensures that the birds are well fed prior to release, but that human contact is kept to an absolute minimum.

All being well the first birds will be ready to be released in about two weeks’ time and in the intervening period they will continue to be monitored closely.

We’re delighted that the second year of this exciting project to restore Ospreys to their former haunts on the South Coast of England is underway.

For the most recent updates on the Poole Harbour Osprey Project, please check out the Birds of Poole Habour website.

CCTV images from each pen allow the development of each bird to be carefully monitored (photo by Paul Morton)

Jules makes it home

Great news – our satellite tagged osprey, Jules, made it back to Starthspey yesterday afternoon after a 20 day migration from the Casamance region of Senegal. At 15:30 yesterday afternoon he was at Rothiemurchus Fishery – the location where we tagged him last September.

In our previous updated we reported that Jules was flying west over Stoke-on-Trent on Wednesday morning. We now know that he paused briefly to the south of Leek before continuing north at around 11:00 BST. He passed to the east of Manchester two hours later at an altitude of 475 metres. He continued north through the Pennines, averaging around 30 kph and reached Northumberland at 18:30. He continued flying until 21:00 when he finally settled to roost for the night in a forested area immediately south of the Scottish border after a day’s flight of 326 km.

Jules flew directly over Stoke-on-Trent at an altitude of just over 300 metres on Wednesday morning

Yeserday morning Jules cleared sensed that he was close to home because he continued north at first light and reached the Firth of Forth to the east of Edinburgh at North Bewick at 08:40. He crossed the Firth at an altitude of approximately 150 metres before continuing on through Fife, over Dundee and then into Angus. By 12:32 he was in southern Moray and at this point he turned due west to fly direct to Aviemore. By the time he reached Rothiemurchus he had flown 244 km since leaving his roost site in the Borders.

Jules does not have an established nest, and so it will be very interesting to follow his movements this summer. We’ll be sure to keep you updated over the coming months, but won’t be publishing any further movements on our interactive map because Jules is likely to visit established osprey nest sites in the course of his wanderings, many of which are kept confidential in order to protect the birds. You can however check out his complete 20 day migration on the map here.

Jules flew 570 km over two days before arriving in Aviemore yesterday afternoon

Back in the UK

After spending the weekend at the Gulf of Morbihan in Brittany, Jules arrived back in the UK yesterday, flying an impressive 580 km in just 11 hours before roosting 8 km south-west of Stafford.

Jules set-off from his stop-over site at around 10 am BST yesterday morning and headed purposefully north. Aided by a strong tailwind he reached the north coast of France three hours later and then set-off across the English Channel, passing over Guernsey at around 14:30 BST before reaching the English coast at Portland Bill at approximately 16:20 BST, at relatively low altitude.

Jules flew over Portland Bill as he reached the English coast

With the wind in his favour, Jules continued to power north. Flying at speeds of over 60 kph at altitudes of up to 928 metres he passed to the east of Bristol at 18:00 and to the west of Birmngham two hours later. He eventually settled to roost at dusk on the edge of a wood near the villages of Church Eaton and Apeton in Staffordshire.

Jules flew 580 km from Brittany to Staffordshire in 11 hours yesterday

This morning Jules resumed his journey at first light and at 09:16 he was over Stoke-on-Trent. Without an established nest to return to, it will be fascinating to follow his progress as he continues north to Starthspey. Will he head straight there on explore elsewhere? Watch this space!

You can check out Jules’ migration on our interactive map. 


A French stop-over

Ospreys often return to favoured stop-over locations during migration. These are often sites where they lingered during their first migration as a juvenile and they become important ‘goal areas’ during subsequent journeys. Last autumn Jules stopped-over at the Gulf of Morbihan in Brittany from 17 September to 2 October, and the latest satellite data shows that he has spent the last two days there as he migrates back to Scotland this spring.

In our previous update we reported that Jules had roosted to the east of Seville on the night of 22nd April. Next morning he resumed his migration at around 08:00 local time, and flew 138 km north to southern Extremadura before roosting close to Embalse de Navalespino.

Jules likely caught a fish next morning because he didn’t begin migrating again until around 10:00 local time. He made relatively good progress once he did resume his journey through eastern Extremadura; flying 239 km before stopping for the night at the north-east end of another reservoir, Embalse de Santa Teresa in Castile and León.

Jules made an even later start to his journey on 25th April, heading almost due east from his roost site at around midday. He turned to the north-east an hour later and then flew 160 km before roosting near a series of small lakes close to the village of Lastras de Cuéllar.

After three relatively easy days of migration, Jules set off on the morning of 26th April with much more purpose. He flew 252 km during the course of the day and reached the north coast of Spain just to the west of Bilbao around half an hour before sunset at 20:30. Usually this would be his cue to find somewhere to roost for the night, but on this occasion Jules showed no sign of letting up. As the sun set he was already 15 km out to sea, and during the course of the night he crossed the Bay of Biscay, flying 426 km at altitudes as low as 48 metres before making landfall to the south-west of Nantes just before sunrise next morning. He finally stopped to rest at around 09:30 local time just south of the Loire Estuary having flown 693 km from northern Spain in just over 24 hours.

Jules flew 693 km from Spain to Brittany in just over 24 hours

After resting for much of the day Jules flew 31 km north during late afternoon before roosting at the southern end of a lake in a forested area in southern Brittany.

On Saturday morning rather than continuing north Jules made a distinct turn to the west and flew 56 km to the Gulf of Morbihan, where he has remained since; returning to some of his favoured haunts from last autumn. It will be fascinating to see how long he remains there for.   Don’t forget that you can check out Jules’ flight so far on our interactive map.

Jules’ movements since arriving at Gulf of Morbihan (pink) in relation to his positions last autumn (green)

Into Spain

Jules continues to make excellent progress on his return migration to Scotland. Yesterday evening he roosted 60 km east of Seville in central Andalucia.

We know that on Thursday night last week Jules roosted in southern Morocco. Next morning he set-off early, shortly after 06:00 GMT. He reached the southern side of the vast Atlas Mountains three hours later, and over the course of the next 90 minutes he crossed the maintains, passing peaks of over 4000 metres.

Jules flew directly through the Atlas Mountains, passing peaks of over 4000 metres

Once through the mountains he powered on north, passing to the east of Marrakesh and onwards towards Rabat at speeds of over 50 kph. He eventually settled to roost for the night on a hillside with scattered trees, between Casablanca and Rabat, having flown 409 km during the course of the day.

On Saturday morning Jules resumed his migration at around 08:00 GMT and passed to the east of Rabat an hour-and-a-half later. He made slower progress than previous days and at 17:15 was perched beside Barrage El Wahda, a large reservoir in northern Morocco. This would have provided Jules’ with a much needed opportunity to feed after his flight across the Sahara and Atlas Mountains. He eventually settled to roost on a forest hillside 10 km north of the reservoir after a day’s flight of 217 km.

Jules roosted north of Barrage El Wahda before returning there early next morning to feed

Next morning Jules returned to the reservoir at around 08:30 and almost certainly caught a fish because he was perched on the shoreline for the next hour-and-a-half, presumably eating his catch. He resumed his journey at approximately 10:30 GMT. Two hours later he reached the north coast of Morocco and then crossed the Strait of Gibraltar before passing over Algeciras in southern Spain. He continued to make good progress during the afternoon before settling to roost in an olive grove in central Andalucia at around 18:15 GMT (20:15 local time) after a day’s flight of 308 km.

Jules’ flight across the Strait of Gibraltar on Sunday afternoon

Jules has flown 934 km over the past three days

You can check out Jules’ flight so far on our interactive map.

Crossing the Sahara

Over the past few weeks we’ve been wondering when our satellite-tagged osprey, Jules, would set-off from his wintering site in the Casamance region of southern Senegal. Ospreys with established nests usually leave in mid-March, but younger birds often depart later. Jules was unringed when we tagged him at Rothiemurchus Fishery last September, and he then set-off on migration the very next morning; meaning we do not know how old he is, or if he has an established nest site. It also made predicting his spring departure more tricky.

Jules finally left his wintering site on Saturday 14th April; a relatively late departure that indicates he is probably a young bird without a nest to reclaim. Nevertheless he has made excellent progress and last night he roosted just south of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco having flown 2336 km during his first six days of migration, and successfully crossed the Sahara. Here’s a day-by-day summary of his journey so far.

Saturday 14 April 

Jules set-off from his wintering site in the Casamance region of southern Senegal at approximately 11:00 GMT. He flew 191 km ENE at a maximum altitude of 1316 m before stopping to roost a few kilometres south of the River Gambia.

Sunday 15th April 

Jules left his overnight roost at around 09:30 and headed across the River Gambia soon afterwards. By 12:47 he had flown 81 km due north, and at this point he changed his heading to north-east. He maintained the same bearing for the rest of the afternoon before settling to roost close to the border of Senegal and Mauritania after a day’s flight of 340 km.

Monday 16th April 

After a couple of short local movements Jules resumed his migration at 09:30 and crossed into Mauritania soon afterwards, with the vast and desolate Sahara ahead. The wind must have been in his favour because he maintained a perfect north-easterly heading during the course of the day, flying a total of 349 km across the desert at a maximum altitude of 1464 m.

Jules’ first three days of spring migration

Tuesday 17th April 

Having roosted on the desert floor, Jules began migrating again at approximately 09:00 GMT. Unlike the previous day he set-off on a northerly heading, and then maintained it for the rest of the day, crossing the Akchâr Desert region of central Mauritania. He made particularly fast progress during the middle part of the day when thermals would have been strongest, covering 208 km in four hours after midday. When he finally settled to roost at around 19:15 he had flown an impressive 503 km during the day and was now close to the border with Western Sahara.

Wednesday 18th April 

Jules left his roost site just before 09:00 GMT and headed north. By 14:00 he had flown 237 km and at this point he turned more to the north-east, appearing to follow ridges in the desert below. He maintained this heading for the rest of the afternoon, flying at altitudes of up to 2000 m. He eventually settled to roost in northern Western Sahara shortly after 19:00 after a day’s flight of 437 km.

Jules appeared to be following ridges than run north-east across the northern part of the Sahara during the afternoon of the 18th April

Thursday 19th April 

Jules was now nearing the end of his crossing of the Sahara and he left his roost site in the desert at 09:15. As the previous afternoon he maintained an almost perfect north-easterly bearing as he crossed the northern reaches of the Sahara into southern Morocco, flying at a maximum altitude of 2500 m. He passed well to the east of Tiznit and continued across the Anti-Atlas Mountains until after dark. When he finally settled to roost at 20:30 he had flown 516 km during the course of the day and was approximately 100 km east of Agadir.

Jules has made fast progress across the Sahara over the past four days

All being well Jules will have crossed the Atlas Mountains today, and will reach Spain over the weekend. We’ll have another update on his progress early next week. In the meantime you can check out Jules’ flight so far on our interactive map.

Osprey stamp – a special appeal

Later this month the Royal Mail are releasing a series of special stamps to celebrate successful reintroductions in the UK. We are delighted that they have chosen the osprey as one of the six featured species given our work in both the UK and around Europe over the past two decades. The Foundation, and Roy in particular, has been a key driving force behind the two English translocation projects at Rutland Water and Poole Harbour as well as others in Spain, Italy, Portugal and Switzerland.

The osprey stamp is being released by the Royal Mail on 17th April

To mark the occasion we are launching an appeal to raise money for our ongoing osprey conservation work. The first 200 people who make a donation of £10 or more to this appeal will be sent a limited edition postcard signed by Roy, with the osprey stamp affixed. The postcard features images of some of the key ospreys involved in the English reintroductions: 03(97), a male that we translocated to Rutland Water in 1997 and who went on to raise 32 chicks; Green J, an adult female who bred at a nest in Strathspey for many years and produced chicks for translocation to Rutland Water as well as Andalucia and the Basque Country in Spain; and LS1, one of the eight juvenile ospreys that we translocated to Poole Harbour last year. The postcards will be sent in envelopes to ensure that they are not damaged in the post.

The limited edition postcards will be signed by Roy and have the osprey stamp affixed.

All money raised by the appeal will go directly towards our ongoing osprey conservation work, including:

  • Artificial nest building
  • Monitoring and protection of breeding ospreys
  • Coordinating the UK colour-ringing scheme and presenting the results online via our interactive map
  • Translocation projects
  • Satellite tracking

To support the appeal simply make a donation of £10 or more by clicking the donate button below. We’ll then get in touch by email to confirm where you would like the postcard sent.

Thank you very much for your support.