Osprey Pandion haliaetus, adult female landing at eyrie with moss

Osprey

The osprey is a magnificent bird of prey, with a wingspan of more than 1.5 metres.

Ospreys in the UK

The osprey is a magnificent bird of prey, with a wingspan of more than 1.5 metres. The birds spend the winter in West Africa and return to the UK each spring to refurbish their large stick nests and breed.

Species status

  • Phase of recovery: Sustainable management  
  • Amber list Bird of Conservation Concern      

Extinction in the UK 

Ospreys were persecuted into extinction in the UK during the 1800s. They were shot for taxidermy and collectors took their eggs. The last recorded breeding took place in Scotland in 1916 and ospreys also disappeared across much of Europe – reaching a low in the 1920s and ‘30s. It was a combination of good luck and legislation to protect these birds which enabled the osprey population to recover. 

The osprey returns

The return of the osprey is shrouded in some mystery but in the 1950s birds migrating to Scandinavia began to turn up in Scotland, and the first confirmed breeding was in 1954. The RSPB was involved at the outset trying to protect breeding birds.  

In 1958, the birds began breeding at the now famous Loch Garten site in Strathspey, where the RSPB set up Operation Osprey, a 24-hour protection watch. The first attempt failed, but ospreys have returned and bred successfully at this site nearly every year since. 

The RSPB bought the Loch Garten site specifically for the conservation of the ospreys and has since acquired the surrounding pinewood, of vital importance for capercaillie and many other UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority species. More than two million people have visited the reserve to see these magnificent birds. 

Numbers increased, albeit very slowly, and there are now around 300 nesting pairs in Britain. Since the turn of this century, ospreys have spread south and now breed in England and Wales where the RSPB is involved in projects to protect the birds and enable thousands of visitors to see them. A project by Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust and Anglian Water to re-introduce ospreys at Rutland Water has also established breeding in central England.

Osprey Pandion haliaetus, adult male off-duty perch early morning

Partnerships and protection - the key to success

Landowners, volunteers and ornithologists from the Scottish Raptor Study Groups were vital in helping the population to increase, as they guarded and monitored the birds. Artificial nest platforms were built to encourage the birds to expand their range. 

Unfortunately, egg collectors continued to target ospreys, and the situation was particularly bad in the late 1980s when 10 or more clutches were plundered each spring. Police action, supported by the RSPB, resulted in a number of high profile prosecutions for osprey egg thieves, which acted as a deterrent. 

Recent changes to the law, following pressure from the RSPB, have introduced custodial sentences for crimes against wildlife. Encouragingly, egg-theft has been substantially reduced. 

Osprey Pandion haliaetus, male hovering Scottish Highlands

The future for ospreys

Habitat destruction and environmental pollution are the biggest threats that ospreys face throughout Europe. The future for ospreys in the UK looks good, however. They have become tourist attractions in a number of places and many thousands of people visit Loch Garten every summer to see them. Viewpoints have been set up at other places so that people can see them without disturbing them. 

The Lake District Osprey Project has enabled over a quarter of a million people to view the ospreys and is estimated to bring more than £1million into the local economy every year.  

Acknowledgements 

The return of the ospreys is largely thanks to landowners and managers, government and voluntary conservation groups, hundreds of volunteers and ornithologists from the Scottish Raptor Study Groups. The Lake District Osprey Project is a partnership of Forestry Commission England and the RSPB, and is supported by the Lake District National Park Authority.  

Osprey Pandion haliaetus, adult female on eyrie in morning light