British ospreys were severely persecuted from the Middle Ages and this led to a huge decline.  By the end of the 18th century it was considered a rare bird, despite having previously nested throughout the British Isles.  Persecution continued throughout the 1900s as well as a new threat from egg collectors.  The final birds were killed and their eggs taken for private collections and museums.  By the end of the 19th century there were just a few pairs remaining.  The last recorded nesting pair was at Loch Loyne in 1916 but individual birds and reports of pairs indicated that the species held on with occasional breeding as well as incomers from Scandinavia, lost on migration. Loch Garten was almost certainly used by breeding ospreys in the 1930s and 1940s, but the new era of ospreys in Scotland started with successful breeding at Loch Garten in 1954 and the establishment of the RSPB’s world famous osprey visitor in 1959.

Photo by Laurie Campbell

First breeding

By 1966 the Scottish population had risen to three pairs and in 1967 young were reared for the first time in the county of Moray, where we are based.  Despite these small successes the rate of colonisation was very slow.  For the population to increase, ospreys need to produce enough young to return to breed over and above the natural losses that occur during the birds’ early years in Africa and on migration.  It was not until the late 1960s that the population started to rise.  By 1974 there were 14 pairs, across Moray, Strathspey, Sutherland and Perthshire, monitored and protected by roy Dennis, while he was the RSPB’s Highland Officer.  However, the rate of increase was hampered by egg thefts; 1977 saw the first clutch of four eggs but sadly it was stolen by egg collectors.  By 1980 there were 26 breeding pairs, 20 of which had laid eggs rearing a total of 41 young, bringing the total number of young reared to a marvellous 250.


The 1980s saw a period of sustained growth in the osprey population in Scotland.  Starting with a base of 26 pairs in 1981, the decade finished with more than double that number – 62 by 1990.  Of these, 56 pairs laid eggs and 90 young were reared, bring the running total to 836 young ospreys known to have flown from Scottish nests since 1951.  We could truly begin to  believe that the birds were here to stay.


1992 saw a milestone of 101 young reared in a year: the first time 100 young ospreys had flown the nest in a year in Britain for probably more than two centuries.  And, thankfully, the number of egg thefts began to decline.   1994 saw another milestone, with the year’s tally of 104 nests being the first time that there had been 100 or more breeding pairs in Britain for several centuries.  At this time the first pair bred in the Scottish Borders, south of the line between Edinburgh and Glasgow.  By the end of the decade the population had reached 147 pairs, with 195 young reared.   The running total had now reached at least 2209 young to successfully fly from Scottish nests since 1954 – a fantastic way to close the old century and herald the dawn of the new.


In 2001 the number of young raised in a year passed the 200 mark and the total population had climbed to 153 known pairs.  In 2006 populations in the north and north-east showed little change, but the population in the south and south west continued to show growth in line with normal recolonisation.

And so, the process of recolonising ancestral osprey haunts continues, albeit slowly at times.  For comparison, look at the speed with which the peregrine falcon bounced back from the devastation in its numbers during the 1950s and 1960s, the era of widespread pesticide use.  Numbers reached rock bottom in the 1970s but the peregrine is now breeding throughout the whole of the British Isles, whereas the osprey is still limited to Scotland, with smaller numbers breeding at Rutland Water, the Lake District, Kielder Forest and Wales. Nowadays summering non-breeding ospreys may be seen in many parts of the British Isles.

Two day old chicks in the nest