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Raptors, commonly referred to as birds of prey, can be found throughout the UK, inhabiting a wide range of environments, from forests and wetlands to urban areas. These carnivorous birds are renowned for their exceptional hunting skills.
As apex predators, birds of prey play a vital role in maintaining ecological balance, and some of the UK’s species hold world records. For instance, the peregrine falcon claims the title of the fastest bird of prey on the planet!
Importance of UK Birds of Prey
Raptors are some of the most magnificent birds in the avian world, but it’s not just their beauty that makes them so special. These birds help to maintain ecosystems, control pests, and even tell us about the environment.
Maintain Ecosystem Balance & Promote Biodiversity
Birds of prey are apex predators, meaning that nothing predates them. The benefit of such creatures in the wild is that they’re able to control populations of the animals on which they prey. This varies between species but can include insects, rodents, and even small mammals.
If left unchecked, these populations could boom and consume far too much plant life, which would have a direct impact on humans. Not to mention it would limit the available habitat for other species, meaning a risk to their numbers.
Not only this, but birds of prey often prey on the weakest small animals or those that are diseased. By removing them from the wild, this ensures that the rest of their populations remain healthy and pass on their strong genes. What’s more, if raptors weren’t predating these animals, there would be a much higher risk of the spread of disease among species, which would have a devastating effect on the ecosystem.
Help Control Pests & Invasive Populations
Imagine a world filled with pests like insects and rodents; I can imagine that most of you reading this wouldn’t be happy. But we have birds of prey to thank for the control of these pests as they form part of their main diet.
What’s more, by eradicating pest species, raptors are extremely beneficial to the agricultural industry, removing creatures that would otherwise damage crops if their populations were allowed to get out of control. In fact, many farmers use birds of prey as a natural method of pest control on their land. By doing this, it eliminates or at least reduces the need to use chemical pesticides which can be harmful to the environment and important insects like bees.
Plus, pests that carry diseases, like rats are also kept under control by these amazing birds, in particular, the barn owl.
Not only this, but there are some raptors, like the peregrine falcon that prey on invasive species like the feral pigeon. If you’ve ever been into a city or town in the UK, you’ll know that there are hundreds of these pest birds. But there’d be many more if it weren’t for our birds of prey.
In previous articles, I have talked about the importance of indicator species. They play an essential role in helping conservationists and scientists to understand the conditions of any given environment. These species are chosen because of their sensitivity to environmental changes and their presence, or lack thereof, determines the quality of the ecosystem.
Birds of prey are one such example of this and can provide us with warning signs that an environment is degrading if their numbers dwindle. Not only this, but since these birds live long lives, it makes it much easier to see how an environment changes over time. For example, in the 50s and 60s, the decline in raptor populations highlighted the negative effects of the use of certain pesticides.
Sadly, there has been a serious decline in the number of raptors in the UK in recent years, showing us that things like pollution, climate change, and habitat loss are a problem here. Using this information, conservationists are also able to raise awareness to the public about the importance of handling these issues. Off the back of this, we can all find ways to protect these valuable birds and improve the conditions of our wildlife habitats.
As I discussed earlier, birds of prey are often used in farming to control pest populations and this means that crop species are better able to thrive. As a direct result of this, more money is earned from agriculture and this ensures job security and a healthy economy in rural areas. Moreover, this means that farming businesses reduce their overheads by reducing the need to use pesticide treatments.
The UK has such a diverse range of raptors that people from all over the world come here to see them. In fact, up to 290,000 visitors come here each year for osprey watching.
There are many activities available, including birdwatching, falconry displays, and wildlife photography that not only help people to better understand these species but also create revenue for the organizations that host them. For example, on the Scottish island of Mull, as much as £8 million is being brought in annually by the white eagle alone.
Another massive benefit is that birds of prey are protected by law in the UK, which means that conservationists may receive funding to further study these wonderful creatures. This enables us to understand the birds and find ways to protect them and manage their populations.
Threats Facing UK Birds of Prey
In the UK, there are sadly several factors that pose a threat to the populations of our birds of prey. Humans are largely responsible for many of these threats, including habitat reduction and the effects of climate change. But by understanding what threats they face, we’re better able to rectify the problems.
Habitat loss is a problem for many animals, and raptors are no exception. These predatory birds require large hunting grounds, and the more that humans encroach on their territory because of urbanization and farming means that they have fewer hunting opportunities. This is because, as habitats are built on, the number of prey species also declines. Without enough food, raptors are less likely to breed successfully, so it’s easy to see why their numbers may decrease. Moreover, reports tell us that as many as one in four UK bird species is now listed as endangered because of habitat loss.
It has been reported that the installation of wind farms is a major problem for birds of prey. Most notable, the golden eagle, as these birds appear to be frightened of the blades and will avoid hunting in these areas.
Not only this, but their nesting spots are being reduced and these things combined can have a significant impact on their populations. Even where habitat still remains, it’s often fragmented and this simply doesn’t provide these birds with the resources they need.
Illegal Killing & Poisoning
Sadly, birds of prey are at risk from human persecution as some people view them as a pest or a threat. This is often seen in agriculture, where farmers may kill or trap raptors, concerned that they pose a threat to their livestock. In some areas, this practice is more common than in others, and where it’s happening, the impact on raptor populations is significant.
However, it’s worth mentioning that shooting or capturing these birds is often done illegally, yet it still occurs more often than you’d like to imagine. This is even more devastating when we realize the importance of raptors for the ecosystem. But there are prosecutions taking place and since the 90s, as many as two thirds of those prosecuted for crimes against raptors have been gamekeepers. In the same report, we see that as many as 85 incidents of similar crimes were reported in 2019 alone.
Many birds of prey suffer from poisoning because of the use of pesticides. While this doesn’t always cause death, it can cause illness, which can affect the breeding abilities of these birds, further reducing their numbers. One such incident occurred in Dorset, where a man was arrested for the use of illegal pesticides as well as keeping dead buzzards. And this isn’t an isolated incident, in the 20th century, it’s believed that the use of pesticides like DDT was responsible for the decline in populations of the red kite and the peregrine falcon.
Another worrying factor here is that birds of prey are feeding on the carcasses of wounded animals that have been shot with lead ammunition. As a result of this, the birds are suffering from lead poisoning which results in a very slow and unpleasant death.
Climate change is affecting animals all over the world, and the birds of prey in the UK are just one example of this. Since the 1970s, climate change has been one of the top two factors affecting our wildlife. One of the main effects of climate change is the impact it has on habitat, which also directly impacts the number of available prey species. Without sufficient food, this instantly leads to a decline in bird of prey populations.
The way climate change affects habitats can vary. For example, changes to the weather, including rising temperatures and more precipitation mean that prey species are behaving and moving in unpredictable ways. In some cases, the rising temperatures can lead to small mammal species expanding their range while in other cases, their numbers may decline.
Another worrying aspect of climate change has to do with migration. This is something that’s seen in many species as their migration patterns are affected by the weather. Now that spring is much warmer, this can encourage premature migration and, when the birds arrive, they’re met with insufficient prey opportunities. While not birds of prey, it’s reported that swallows are now arriving two weeks early and staying up to four weeks longer before migrating for winter. Birds of prey are facing similar issues.
There’s also the issue of extreme weather causing physical damage to habitats, meaning that the availability of nesting sites is drastically reduced. Studies have shown that by as soon as 2080, bird populations around the world will dramatically change.
If you live in the United Kingdom then you’ll probably be aware of the outbreaks of avian flu; there have been warnings posted in many wildlife areas. This disease can affect all birds and causes symptoms in the digestive, respiratory, and nervous systems, often leading to death. Alarmingly, research has revealed that, while the disease is primarily passed between birds, it has been reported in some small mammals.
Another common disease among birds is trichomoniasis, which is a parasitic disease caused by a parasite called Trichomonas gallinae. It’s very common in raptors that prey on rodents or small birds and can result in wounds inside the throat and mouth, making it difficult for the bird to eat. The result is often starvation.
The West Nile virus is another condition that can affect birds of prey and can also be passed between humans and other animals. The disease is spread by mosquitoes and often results in death for raptors. This, along with other diseases can seriously affect the breeding abilities of these birds, resulting in a decline in their populations.
In an ideal world, humans and animals would live harmoniously, but that’s sadly not the case, and it’s having an impact on our birds of prey here in the UK.
Nesting birds are among some of the most vulnerable to disturbance, but the sad reality is that most humans don’t even realize they’re disturbing them. For example, when tourists enter a wildlife area, they may unknowingly approach a nesting site; in some cases, they may even do this intentionally in the hopes of getting a glimpse at one of these amazing birds. However, I should warn you that this has a detrimental impact, so it’s important to allow raptors to nest peacefully. If they’re not, it could even lead to parents abandoning their nest.
That issue aside, the mere activity of humans can cause disturbances, and noise pollution is one of the greatest problems. This can come from traffic, construction, and other human activities, and it’s reported that birds are literally losing out on sleep because of this.
The UK government reports that there are around 194 invasive species in the country, and these can have a serious effect on our birds of prey. For example, the introduction of non-native plants can affect where raptors choose to nest. Not to mention that they could reduce the habitat for their prey species, making it harder for them to find food. If that wasn’t enough, we have to consider that these invasive species can change the very structure of the ecosystem which means that many raptor populations will begin to shift.
While birds of prey are apex predators, the introduction of species like the American mink make them vulnerable. It’s not the adults but the eggs and chicks on which mink often prey. On top of this, invasive predatory animals mean more competition for food and resources, which can put a strain on birds of prey.
There is also the risk of disease and parasites from invasive species that can be passed onto birds of prey, affecting their health and ability to breed.
Birds of Prey Species Found in the UK
The UK boasts a rich diversity of birds of prey, offering numerous benefits to our ecosystems. Let’s get better acquainted with some of them.
1. Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo)
The common buzzard, as its name suggests, is one of the most abundant and widespread raptors in the UK and is a popular sight for birdwatchers. However, in the early 20th century, the populations of these birds declined as a result of persecution. Fortunately, their numbers have been restored, and it’s thought that there are around 100,000 breeding pairs in the UK today. What’s more, it is now illegal to harm common buzzards since they’re protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
These are medium-sized birds of prey that feed on rodents and small mammals but they also snack on worms and insects. Because of their diet, they are considered an effective pest controller of rodents, which is beneficial to farmers whose crops would otherwise be damaged.
Common buzzards enjoy a variety of habitats, including farmland and woodland and grow to a weight of around 3 lbs (1.4 kg). They have rounded heads and a slender bill, but their plumage can vary in color from light to dark brown and this often changes with age.
2. Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
The kestrel is another of the most common raptors in the UK and can be found in both rural and urban settings where they prey on small mammals, insects, and sometimes birds. They use their ability to see UV light to help them better detect prey and have long, sharp talons that even help them to catch a meal in flight.
However, while they are common, the number of kestrels has declined in recent years due to habitat loss, but they are protected making it illegal to disturb or kill them. What’s more, there are lots of conservation efforts in place to restore their natural habitat.
Just like the common buzzard, the kestrel is considered to be an important pest controller, and they’re often used around landfill sites and airports for this very reason. However, they’re also a common bird spotting species and can be distinguished by their agility and hovering flight, which often occurs when they’re honing in on their prey.
Kestrels are a small bird of prey, and males and females are markedly different. While the male has a gray head, that of the female is brown. You may spot them nesting in man made structures, but they’ll also nest in the disused nests of crows. These birds mate for life and only once a year, with females producing between three and six eggs in a clutch.
3. Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)
Sparrowhawks are a small species of raptor that prefer a woodland habitat and are found in areas all over the UK. Just like kestrels, these birds mate for life and can be found nesting in trees where the female constructs a nest and will lay between four and five eggs in a clutch.
One of the most interesting things about the sparrowhawk is how it hunts. It primarily preys on smaller birds and uses the element of surprise. They’ll fly low to the ground before launching themselves at their target. Despite this, it’s reported that they only have a hunting success rate of around 10%.
To identify a sparrowhawk, you’re looking for a small bird with a barrel-shaped body and a long tail. They’re generally only around the size of a blackbird and have short, broad wings.
The population of sparrowhawks in the UK has declined in recent years due to habitat loss. But reports have also shown that their presence has a serious effect on house sparrow populations.
4. White-Tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla)
The white tailed eagle is one of the larger birds of prey in the UK and for many years, it was extinct here. However, in the 70s, the bird was reintroduced to Scotland where it can still be found today. Further plans are being made to also reintroduce the white tailed eagle to southern England after more than two centuries.
However, despite this, these beautiful birds are still at risk from factors like habitat loss and are therefore listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. On the Isle of Wight, reports of potential poisoning have been made, although much of this still remains a mystery. In any case, it’s important that conservation efforts are ongoing as the white tailed eagle is essential as both a pest controller and an indicator species, as well as helping control biodiversity.
This species is popular with bird watchers, and its nests can often be spotted along cliff sides. They have white heads, necks, and tails with dark brown bodies and wings so are easy to distinguish from other species. White tailed eagles typically grow to around 35 inches (90 cm).
What’s more, this species has cultural significance within the UK and is mentioned in various folklore. As a result of this, these birds are one of the most iconic raptors in the country, and even the world.
5. Short-Eared Owl (Asio flammeus)
The short-eared owl is one of five owl species found in the UK and, contrary to popular belief, they’re not only nocturnal hunters but are also active during the day. In fact, you may even spot one flying over marshland or open fields. However, this species is more common in coastal and upland areas.
Short-eared owls have an incredibly varied diet made up from small mammals as well as birds, reptiles, and insects. Where these prey species are in abundance, there are healthy populations of short-eared owls, which makes them an important indicator species.
To identify a short-eared owl, look for a bird with large yellow eyes, a black beak, and a rounded head. They have large wingspans up to 41 inches (105 cm) and can be seen taking a slow, controlled flight. You might also listen out for their hooting call, which is more prominent in spring when it’s mating season. A healthy individual could live for up to 12 years in the wild.
While conservation efforts to restore short-eared owl habitat are underway, this is still a species that’s at risk. As such, it is protected under UK law, and it’s vital that we realize the important role they play within the ecosystem and raise awareness as to why protecting them should be a priority.
6. Tawny Owl (Strix aluco)
Tawny owls are a mid-sized species that are common all over the UK, and you may spot them in woods or even parkland. Like the short-eared owl, this species has a rounded head, but their eyes are much darker. But unlike short-eared owls, the tawny owl only comes out to hunt at night when it searches for small mammals, insects, and birds.
If you’ve ever mimicked an owl call and made a ‘tu-whit-tu-whoo’ sound then you’ve been copying the tawny owl. This call makes it very easy to distinguish. There was even a survey that took place where members of the public were asked to listen for tawny owl calls, enabling conservationists to better understand their distribution.
This kind of information is invaluable because the number of tawny owls in the UK has declined owing to factors like habitat loss. Having an abundant habitat is essential for activities like breeding, as this species nests in tree hollows, despite having adapted rather well to urban life, sometimes nesting in purpose built bird boxes.
7. Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
Ospreys are one of the most important biological indicators as their diet of fish means that, where there aren’t healthy aquatic populations, nor will there be ospreys. Because of this diet, the species is sometimes referred to as the fish eagle, although you’ll only find them in the UK during spring when they make their epic migration from West Africa for breeding. This means that they’re a common sight around areas like Rutland Water and Loch Garten, which they favor for breeding.
While the osprey is a relatively common sight, the populations in the UK have declined, primarily as a result of habitat loss. The good news is that there have been many conservation efforts to bring those numbers back up, such as creating man made nesting platforms, and the birds are also protected under UK law. Although it’s important that these efforts continue as it’s thought that there are still only around 1500 individuals in the UK, and most of these are found in Scotland.
The osprey is a very easy bird to identify thanks to its coloration; a brown upper body with a white underside. What’s more, their hooked bill is another unique characteristic, and they use this to help them catch their prey.
8. Red Kite (Milvus milvus)
Because of habitat loss and persecution by humans, the red kite, a once abundant species, became an incredibly rare right in the UK. However, in the 90s, a reintroduction program was launched, and these birds are increasing in number and can be seen all over the country. However, if you’re looking to spot one then you might be best heading to Wales or the central and southern parts of England where they’re more common.
If you’re out looking for a red kite then you’ll need to look for a medium-sized raptor with a wingspan up to 5.9 feet (1.8 meters). They boast a forked tail, which they use in their elaborate acrobatic flight. You’ll normally find them in uplands and woodlands, where they prey on carrion but are also known to catch birds, insects, and small mammals.
Like many other bird of prey species, the red kite is a monogamous creature. Not only will they mate for life, which could be up to ten years, but they’ll also use the same nest time and again.
It’s thought that there are currently 4400 breeding pairs in the UK, proving that the reintroduction programs were successful. However, this is still a relatively low number and conservation efforts continue with projects such as habitat management. Plus, these birds are protected by law to ensure they are not disturbed, harmed, or killed.
9. Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)
The peregrine falcon is one of the most amazing birds of prey in the UK and is known for its immense speed when flying. They hold the world record for being the fastest birds and can dive at up to 240 mph (386 km/h)! This amazing hunting technique sees these birds diving towards their prey from great heights with an ability to spot prey from as far as a mile away, resulting in a hunting success rate of up to 83%.
What’s more, peregrine falcons mainly prey on pigeons, so they’re amazing pest controllers. Although pigeon handlers don’t always see it that way and there have been reports of potential intentional poisonings.
And pigeon handlers are the only ones that don’t see these incredible birds for what they are and the species has suffered severe persecution over the years as well as suffering ill effects from the pesticide, DDT which almost led to them being wiped out in the middle of the 20th century. As a result of this, DDT is now illegal in the UK, and peregrine falcons have since received protection under the law.
If you’re looking to spot a peregrine falcon, head to heathland or farmland (although the species has adapted well to urban environments and has even been spotted in cities, including Derby and Birmingham.) They’ve also been spotted in Scotland around Loch Lomond after more than a century of absence. You’re looking for a bird with blue-gray upperparts and a black hooded head.
10. Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
Another of the UK’s owl species is the barn owl, and this is found all over the UK, where it can be found nesting and roosting in farm buildings, which is where it gets its name.
The barn owl is a beautiful species with a heart-shaped facial disk and mottled coloration with white undersides. They grow to around 35 inches (89 cm) in length and can live for up to four years in the wild. However, they’re difficult to spot since they only come out to hunt small rodents at night. That said, you might hear them under the cover of darkness, making a hissing sound that’s incredibly haunting.
Barn owls are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 in the UK owing to declining numbers, primarily as a result of habitat loss. However, efforts are underway to tackle the problem which include the installation of man-made nest boxes, habitat management, and traffic management to prevent the species experiencing collisions.
11. Merlin (Falco columbarius)
Measuring just 9.8 inches (25 cm) in length, the merlin is the smallest known raptor species in the UK, and they’re found all over the country in hilly areas and open moorlands. However, owing to habitat loss, the number of merlins in the UK has rapidly declined, and it’s thought that there are now only around 1000 breeding pairs. This is why it’s important to report sightings of these birds to the British Trust For Ornithology so that their numbers and distribution can be monitored.
In addition to this, the merlin has been placed under strict protection in the UK, and many conservation efforts are taking place, including nest boxes and predator control. While numbers are low, it’s great to know that they’re listed as a Schedule 1 bird, so they’re afforded even more protection.
Watching merlins in flight can be extremely exciting, especially during mating season when the males perform an impressive mid-air courtship dance that’s incredibly acrobatic. However, they’re also incredibly territorial birds and will defend their nests no matter what it takes.
Merlins mainly feed on smaller birds, although there is concern over the availability of prey owing to the effects of climate change. This species can be identified by their blue-gray wings and back. However, the female is slightly different in appearance, having brown, streaked plumage.
12. Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)
In my opinion, the goshawk is one of the most striking looking birds of prey found in the UK. With gray and white mottled plumage and large yellow/orange eyes, they’re easy to identify. They also have long talons and a sharp, curved beak, both of which help it to capture and kill its prey which usually includes small mammals and birds.
However, you’ll be lucky to see one in the wild as these birds tend to keep to themselves. If you do want to spot one, you’ll have the most luck in woodland areas. Do keep in mind that they are protected by law, so you should not disturb or harm them. Not to mention how territorial they can be. Even so, the goshawk remains under threat due to habitat loss. It’s thought that there could be as few as 430 breeding pairs in the UK, so protecting them is a must. Although, these pairs do mate for life and will often return to the same nesting site every year.
While not as fast as the peregrine falcon, goshawks can still fly very quickly, with speeds of up to 40 mph (64 km/h).
13. Long-Eared Owl (Asio otus)
The long-eared owl is found all over the UK and is a medium sized bird of prey with a wingspan up to 41 inches (105 cm). Like many other owl species, long-eared owls mainly hunt at night and can be heard making barking or ‘woo’ calls.
However, it’s not all that easy to spot a long-eared owl and they’re usually found in woodland habitats where they will hunt for small rodents and birds. That said, there have been reports of these owls in urban areas which is likely due to the problems they face with habitat loss. Even though the species does not migrate, it is known to move around the UK in order to find the best food and nesting spots. Fortunately, there are many conservation efforts in place to restore their natural habitat.
Long-eared owls have large feathers on their heads known as ear tufts, although they don’t actually function as a hearing organ. These feathers are actually used to help the bird camouflage as well as in communication. They can also be identified by their bright orange eyes and rusty plumage.
14. Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
The golden eagle is often seen as a symbolic bird in the UK, and they’re one of the largest species that can be found here, weighing up to 15 lbs (7 kg). However, they’re primarily found in the Scottish Highlands and surrounding islands. So iconic are they that they’re often referred to as the king of the skies.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, sheep farmers would cull golden eagle populations as they thought they were a threat to their livestock. Although, this wasn’t the case, as these birds feed on small mammals, not large ones. However, these killings led to a serious decline in their numbers, but rewilding projects and habitat restoration (which has been lost due to climate change) have taken place to restore their numbers. What’s more, the golden eagle is now protected under UK law.
It’s super important to protect the golden eagle because it is an important player within the ecosystem and helps to control the populations of the species on which it preys. Golden eagles are formidable hunters that can fly at speeds of up to 150 mph (241 km/h) when in pursuit of prey. This is another species that mates for life and during courtship displays, these birds take to the air for an impressive performance.
15. Hobby (Falco subbuteo)
The hobby is actually a type of falcon and can be found in the UK during the breeding season, which begins around the end of April and continues into September. When they’re here, they’ll often be spotted in open countryside where they’ll perform amazing acrobatics in flight as they swoop in to catch their prey of small birds and insects in mid-flight.
Not only are their aerial acrobatics impressive, but their speed too; these birds, despite being small, can soar at speeds of up to 60 mph (97 km/h)!
When looking for a hobby, you’ll need to keep an eye out for a small bird (around 15 inches (38 cm) with a wingspan of 34 inches (87 cm)) with a long tail and pointed wings. They have a gray-brown head and rusty colored legs, which is one of their most easily identifiable features. In the wild, hobbies can live for as long as five years.
Unlike many other raptors, the hobby is not facing any significant threats. In fact, it’s reported that their numbers may be increasing, and there could now be as many as 2800 breeding pairs in the United Kingdom.
16. Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus)
Found all over the UK from north to south, the hen harrier is a common species. Although in many instances, the hen harrier will migrate to Africa for the winter. However, its numbers have begun to decline in recent years due to persecution from game keepers since the bird often feeds on grouse.
However, the good news is that there are lots of conservation efforts in place to protect the hen harrier, and these seem to be having a good effect, especially on the success of breeding within this species. This is welcome news since, in 2013, the species failed to breed successfully, and number subsequently dropped by as much as 20%.
Hen harriers are a ground nesting bird that can often be spotted in heather moorlands, although it’s thought that their numbers may have decreased to around 600 breeding pairs. As such, the hen harrier is protected as a Schedule 1 bird in the UK, so it’s illegal to disturb their nesting sites. If you do spot one, allow it the space it deserves and view from a distance. While numbers are declining, the RSPB has initiated many conservation efforts to protect this species from habitat loss and the effects of climate change, including monitoring the species.
17. Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus)
As their name might suggest, marsh harriers are often found in wetland habitats where they will nest among dense reeds. While they are common around the UK, they’re most abundant in the Somerset Levels and the Norfolk Broads. Breeding typically begins in April, and both mom and dad take part in building the nest and raising the chicks.
The marsh harrier feeds on a diet of small mammals, reptiles, and birds but may sometimes prey on fish where they are available. When hurting, they can be seen soaring through the sky, and they’re very adept at this thanks to their specially adapted long and narrow wings.
Sadly, the marsh harrier is another raptor that has suffered from persecution and this got so bad that, at one point, they almost became extinct in the UK. The good news is that conservation efforts have partially restored their numbers, although there is a way to go since its thought that there are still fewer than 700 breeding pairs in the country.
18. Honey Buzzard (Pernis apivorus)
While the honey buzzard is only found in the UK during summer, being a migratory species, it is still protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 owing to factors like habitat loss. As a result of this protection, honey buzzards are being afforded nest protection programs and habitat restoration but still, numbers remain low, and it’s thought that only around 60 breeding pairs visit the UK each year.
What’s more, the honey buzzard, similar in appearance to the common buzzard but with longer wings, is very susceptible to the effects of climate change. Not only can this upset their migration, but it can also have an impact on their breeding success which further demonstrates the importance of protecting them.
Unlike a lot of raptors, the honey buzzard has a rather unusual diet. Instead of preying on insects, mammals, and birds, this species favors bee and wasp larvae, but that explains how it got its name, doesn’t it!
Conservation Efforts to Protect UK Birds of Prey
As is probably very apparent by now, many UK birds of prey are under threat from various factors like habitat loss, climate change, and persecution. However, there are lots of conservation programs going on designed to offer protection to their populations.
Where restoring habitat is concerned, several efforts are in place which are designed to improve and restore the lost or damaged habitat of our raptor species. This can include the removal of invasive species as well as planting native species that the birds can use for nesting.
And conservationists are looking to get everyone involved with suggestions that paying farmers to help with habitat restoration could increase bird populations by as much as 50%. Many similar projects in peatlands have already shown great success, with some bird species returning after more than 20 years of absence.
The government has also implemented plans to restore habitat by increasing the number of hedgerows that birds, and many other creatures can use for shelter and protection.
Protection of Nesting Sites
One of the best ways that we can help birds of prey in the UK is to protect the places in which they nest. As I’ll discuss in the nest section, it is illegal to disturb the nests of these birds, but further protection is being afforded as accidental disturbances often occur.
This can include the installation of signs warning that there are nesting raptors in the vicinity to raise awareness, as well as physical protection like fences around known nesting sites. What’s more, it’s essential that these sites are monitored so that illegal activity can be stopped and reported.
However, this can also include the provision of nest boxes, which is something that’s happening in both rural and urban settings. A prime example of this was in Portsmouth, where three nest boxes were installed after raptors were found nesting nearby.
The protection of birds of prey in the UK began back in the 1950s when the first legislation came into place protecting all species apart from the sparrowhawk. However, today in the UK, all bird of prey species are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. This means that it is illegal to disturb their nests, harm or kill them.
Penalties for breaking the laws around the protection of birds of prey can be severe and may even result in jail time. The most famous recent case was that of Paul Allen, who was sentenced for raptor persecution.
Tackling Illegal Killing & Preventing Poisonings
While laws are in place to protect birds of prey, it’s vital that everyone plays their part in reporting suspected crimes. The RSPB provides some useful information on how and what to report.
Law enforcement agencies are working hard to deter people from committing crimes against birds of prey and have even gone to extreme lengths, using drones to spot potential illegal activity. What’s more, where illegal activity is known to regularly take place, police are now making random, unannounced checks to ensure that everyone is complying with the law.
Poisoning of birds of prey is a common problem, and this is something that is also being tackled. The best method is to encourage farmers to use alternative methods of pest control as opposed to harmful pesticides. Despite more than 100 years of protection and attempts to raise awareness, these poisonings are still relatively common.
Rehabilitation & Release
While it’s essential to focus on protecting the general populations of raptors, we cannot forget the plight of individual birds. That’s why assisting birds of prey that have been orphaned or injured is so important and something that’s happening in rehabilitation centers all over the country.
It’s here that these birds are given appropriate care and treatment before being prepared to be released back into the wild. One such example occurred in the south of England, where ten orphaned hen harriers were brought from France, rehabilitated, and finally released back into the wild in hopes of restoring natural populations.
Monitoring & Research
There is no way that we can help birds of prey if we don’t properly understand the problems they’re facing. This is why monitoring and research is of the utmost importance as it allows us to keep an eye on populations, discover what threats these birds face, and how they are impacted by them. As a result of this, conservationists are able to determine the best course of action.
For example, in the 60s and 70s, certain types of pesticides were responsible for wiping out buzzard populations, but by monitoring and researching, this was an easy problem to identify and as such, those pesticides have now been banned.