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Ospreys

Image of an osprey - Rousey_cropped_Emyr_EvansImage of an osprey - Rousey_cropped_Emyr_Evans

By Neil Harnott, Cumbria Wildlife Trust

Ospreys are making a comeback.

With their persistence and the efforts of conservationists, they are now regularly seen in Scotland. But what about in Cumbria? Their history in our county is patchy, but it seems ospreys are finding more and more suitable spots to nest and hunt here successfully, according to Neil Harnott, bird-of-prey enthusiast and Senior Conservation Officer at the Trust.

On outstretched wings the osprey glides, fully 70 meters above the lake, head twitching as it searches the water for its prey. Stopping suddenly in mid-air…dropping…hovering…before taking the final plunge, sweeping its wings back and crashing into the freezing cold water of Bassenthwaite Lake.

Disappearing into a plume of water, this huge bird of prey plunges up to three feet into the lake to clutch a fish within its Velcro-like talons, before slowly, almost in slow motion, breaking free of the water, fish wriggling beneath.

Few people who have watched this bird hunt will have difficulty in understanding the awe that it can inspire. Luckily, for us in Cumbria, this is becoming an increasingly common site as ospreys start to colonise the county.

However, there is little evidence to suggest that the osprey has ever formed an important part of Cumbria’s avifauna. Prior to extinction, only three geographical sites in Cumbria have been identified as being occupied, spread over nearly 200 years, the last being around 1831 at Corby Castle near Carlisle.

Unfortunately for the osprey in Britain, an all too familiar tale of human persecution led to a decline in numbers during the 18th and 19th centuries. In England they had ceased to be a breeding bird by the 1830s, whilst in Scotland they struggled on until the last breeding pair was destroyed in 1916.

It wasn’t until 1954, when a pair attempted to nest at the now famous Loch Garten, that this magnificent bird returned to these shores as a breeding bird once again. Human intervention in the form of egg collectors prevented any chicks being hatched that year, and it wasn’t until round-the-clock protection was given to the nest site that the first youngster was successfully fledged in 1959. Since this time the population has been growing steadily and there is now a population in Britain of approximately 180 pairs.

Of particular delight was the first confirmed breeding attempt of an osprey born and bred in Cumbria. In 2010 a pair of birds, both of whom were born at the Bassenthwaite site, the male from 2006 and female from 2007, tried to nest here. Perhaps unsurprisingly for such young birds, the attempt failed.

However, more attempts at breeding by Cumbrian birds have since been confirmed, and this includes a male born at the Bassenthwaite nest in 2007 becoming one of the breeding pair at Bassenthwaite in 2012: the start of a truly Cumbrian population.  

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