The optimism of spring – misplaced or not

Today was one of those gorgeous early spring-like days of late February in the Scottish Highlands. After early morning frost, the land was sparkling under a bright blue sky and the patches of lying snow gave Strathspey the look of Lapland. With a temperature of 10°C and a fresh westerly wind scudding cotton-wool clouds across the sky it was a joy to be in the field.

At midday my route took me near a traditional but long deserted peregrine eyrie and suddenly I saw a shadow high in the sky to the south. Jumping out of the car I saw, through my binoculars, a male peregrine falcon throwing himself up and down in the strong winds, maybe five hundred feet above an ancestral nesting cliff.  His forebears would have returned here on good days in February every year back through more than five millennia, freshly returned from their lowland wintering quarters to join their mates.

He plunged to the north behind the heather hill and then flashed across the front of the crag. He braked and I thought he was going to land on the ledge, where I remember they used to nest. But no, a slight hesitation, and he threw himself upwards, gained height rapidly and, without a backward glance, headed west high over my head. His brief visit had shown him there was no waiting female, no empty scrape nor any distinctive white roosting ledges. The crag was abandoned.

I first visited this nest site in 1960 and a year or so later remember reporting to a Nature Conservancy scientist that the clutch of eggs had cracked and were leaking. This was the lowest point in the peregrine’s fortunes when pesticides destroyed so many eggs and birds. But it was the peregrines of the Highlands of Scotland, living in the most unpolluted part of our islands, which were the bedrock of the recolonisation once the worst chemicals had been banned. Nowadays, the species is doing well in towns and cities, but is faring disastrously in the once-safe areas that I remember so well in the central and eastern Highlands of Scotland. Many of the eyries are empty: a result of illegal persecution on grouse moors. To add insult to injury, many of the peregrine eyries I knew when I was younger, in the north and west of the Highlands, are also abandoned, due to a lack of wild prey: the result of long-term overgrazing and degradation of the land by sheep and red deer.

Today’s male peregrine, dancing in the spring skies, was a joy to see. But, alas, it does not yet know that it will have to visit many empty eyries to find a mate and its chances of being killed before doing so are alarmingly high. In the last five years I have satellite-tagged seven young peregrines in and around the CairngormsNational Park; all of them settled in grouse moor areas. In spring, some made day-trip circuits of well over a hundred miles visiting many empty eyries; in the end none of them survived to breed. Not the sort of pessimism one should feel on such a gorgeous February day in one of the most beautiful parts of our planet, but it’s a pessimism that’s impossible to ignore.

Roy Dennis      19th February 2015