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The return of the native: The Poole Harbour osprey project

Snatching a fish with its mighty talons, the 170cm wingspan of the osprey is hard to miss, but rare to spot in Southern England. However, a new translocation project could encourage a breeding population, and the return of the once native bird to Dorset waters.

Returning to the nest

Local charity Birds of Poole Harbour, Scottish charity the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation and wildlife camera company Wildlife Windows have teamed up to give a helping hand to nature, by focusing on the very beginning of the osprey journey.

Collected from a sustainable colony in Scotland, five to six-week-old chicks will be brought to a secret location in Poole, Dorset. As they acclimatise for a few weeks and feast on plates of fish, the team will be close by, monitoring their progress through CCTV cameras.

As they stretch their wings and prepare for their first flights, the ospreys will be released into an area complete with artificial nests laid with fresh fish, just as they would find in a natural setting. This is the crucial time, and it is vital to make the birds believe that this is home.

Before long, the fledglings will make the migratory journey to West Africa for the winter, and the team will no longer be able to monitor their progress. Following closely behind, the next influx of chicks will be ready to start the process all over again, as the project continues for five years. If it is a success, the team hopes to see breeding birds arriving back in Poole Harbour by 2021.

This project is a small part of the wider conservation recovery plan of osprey in Western Europe and the Mediterranean. Across the region, the birds are being encouraged to return to areas where they have been persecuted by humans.

The Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation said: “Establishing a population of ospreys on the south coast, where estuaries provide extremely rich fishing grounds, will be another positive step forward and help to link existing populations in Rutland, Wales, and France, as part of a pan-European recovery of the species.”

A vast supply of fish already makes an autumn visit to Poole Harbour an attractive prospect for a very small number of the birds, but they no longer stop to breed. Most males are faithful to their home and return there to breed, whereas females look for other ospreys they can join.

Paul Morton from Birds of Poole Harbour said: “These factors combined mean that the natural expansion of the species is very slow – often as little as 11 km per year. This project will help to significantly speed up this process and restore the osprey to the south coast, where we know that they were once a common sight.”

Wildlife organisations and individuals have spent the last eight years making efforts to encourage osprey to colonise Poole Harbour, by attracting adult birds to visit specific areas through artificial nesting platforms and decoy birds. This new venture takes a different approach - one which has already proved successful elsewhere.

Projects taking flight

Rutland Water in the East Midlands was the first osprey translocation project in Europe, and the birds are now nesting in both the nature reserve and outlying areas. Furthermore, the population is increasing.

On the other side of the United Kingdom, this scheme is having a further impact. Two nests have been found in Wales at almost exactly the same latitude as Rutland Water, believed to be a result of this translocation project.

Tim Mackrill, who started helping with the Rutland Water scheme at the age of 14, said: “The ospreys have become part of the local community, so when they come back in the spring, people are generally really, really excited.”

While the birds were welcomed by locals, they have also attracted new visitors to the area, who in turn give a huge boost to the economy. Tim Mackrill said that there was one challenge to overcome, when the ospreys discovered a densely packed fishing ground in the form of a trout farm - the very same trout they had been raised on. However, a profitable solution was found to appease both man and bird. Rather than cover the trout farm with troublesome nets, a photographic hide was set up, and a fee charged to those wishing to capture an image of the majestic birds catching their meals.

He said: “It’s absolutely turned a problem into a fantastic opportunity. Now hundreds of photographers are there over the course of the summer.”

Paul Morton hopes the local community will get behind the project in Poole too: “In other parts of the country there is great excitement when the ospreys return each spring, and in years to come it would be marvellous if there is a similar feeling in Poole and along other parts of the south coast.”

If the populations link up, the mighty birds may become a more common site across the continent. And when it comes to freshwater fish, the experts say that Poole Harbour osprey are simply not interested.

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