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Birds of prey

Birds of prey are fascinating and spectacular creatures, and are an essential part of a healthy eco-system. But the UK's raptors are in trouble, and need protecting

Above: red kite

Birds of prey – also known as raptors – are an essential part of a healthy, balanced eco-system. Their hunting habits keep numbers of prey animals, such as rodents, in check.  

They're also important indicators of how healthy habitats are. When raptors are thriving, this usually means there is plenty of food available – in the form of other thriving species further down the food chain.

Birds of prey can bring economic benefits to local communities too. We humans are fascinated by these spectacular creatures, and tourism can be boosted when they are resident in an area – resulting in more jobs and other economic benefits for local people.

Hen Harrier at Langholm Moor

Male Hen harrier at Tarras Valley Nature Reserve

However, birds of prey face many challenges. One of their biggest threats is illegal activity. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 means that wild birds, as well as their eggs, young and nests, are legally protected. But many species of raptors continue to be killed, poisoned, or trapped illegally; their eggs are collected, and their nests are destroyed.

The RSPB and organisations such as the Wildlife Trusts and Wild Justice are working to secure the future of birds of prey through a range of actions – from campaigning for tougher laws around wildlife crimes, including bird of prey persecution, to monitoring birds and their nests.

Five raptor species to spot

From ospreys to owls, there are 15 species of raptor in the UK.

Red kites are instantly recognisable. They're one of the UK's largest birds, with a distinctive forked tail and russet-coloured plumage. The bird's call is a piercing, undulating whistle.

They were once prolific across the UK – but, like many birds of prey, they have had a long history of persecution.

However, a successful long-running reintroduction programme, which began in the Chilterns in the 1990s, has helped the plight of these beautiful birds and saved them from national extinction. They are now frequently seen in Wales and the south of England – and are gradually beginning to return to more northern parts of the UK.

Argaty – a rewilding estate in Perthshire, Scotland – is one such place. The Argaty Red Kites project gives visitors the opportunity to experience these breathtaking birds of prey close up, and learn all about the birds' history – from persecution to extinction to reintroduction.

Buzzards are one of the most frequently spotted raptors in the UK. They are large birds, with broad, rounded wings, and a short, fan-shaped tail – easily distinguishable from the red kite's forked tail. They have dark brown backs with paler underparts and dark wing tips.

Buzzard flying in blue sky

Buzzards can often be seen gliding and circling high up in the sky, sometimes in groups of two, three, or more. They have a clear, loud, single-note call.

Kestrels are much smaller birds – about the size of a pigeon – and are often seen hovering over fields, road verges or woodland edges. This is wonderful to watch – they sometimes appear to be suspended almost motionless in mid-air as they wait to swoop silently on their favourite food, voles.

Kestrel hovering in the sky

Kestrels have chestnut-coloured backs and paler bellies; both back and belly are speckled with dark brown. The males have a blue-grey head. They are included on the Amber List for conservation status, as populations of kestrels have declined in the past 50 years – largely as a result of changes in agriculture.

Peregrine falcons are one of the fastest animals on the planet, reaching staggering speeds of up to 200 miles per hour as they dive down on their prey.

Like other birds of prey, peregrines are victims of persecution and egg theft. But one remarkable peregrine success story has taken place in recent years, in an unlikely location in Derbyshire. The Derby Cathedral Peregrine Project has helped a pair of peregrines nest and raise chicks high up on the cathedral's tower since 2006.

These peregrines might just be the most famous birds of prey in the country, with their own website and millions of viewers tuning in to follow their progress via two strategically placed webcams. They are thriving this year, and raising three chicks.

Hen harriers are slender, aerodynamic birds which are either blue-grey (male) or brown (female). They hold their wings to form a shallow v-shape as they fly, often quite close to the ground.

Hen harriers are also known as 'skydancers' – a delightful name that refers to their gravity-defying, acrobatic mating displays. The 'dancing' continues after the chicks have hatched, too. Both females and males attend the young and the males provide food – this is often passed, mid-air, to the female in an impressive display of 'throw and catch'.

But, sadly, skydancers are the among the most endangered birds in the UK, with a Red List conservation status.

Hen harriers' preferred food is voles, although they also sometimes eat young grouse – this makes the birds unpopular with gamekeepers.

Hen harrier in flight against blue sky

Persecution of hen harriers is a serious problem, and habitat loss is a challenge too. Upland areas in the UK are often managed for grouse shooting or forestry. This can limit the suitable habitat – ideally a mosaic of heather and rough grassland – that enables hen harriers to hunt and breed.

This is why we need more places like the Tarras Valley Nature Reserve in Dumfries and Galloway – an inspiring project of nature restoration across 10,500 acres, created after two epic community buyouts of the land in 2021 and 2022.

The moorland habitats at Tarras Valley support hen harriers, as well as curlew, black grouse and short-eared owls – and visiting golden eagles are sometimes spotted flying high over the hills.

Caring for ground-nesting birds

Hen harriers are ground-nesting birds – so to help potential breeding pairs in 2024, stick to public footpaths across uplands, and keep dogs on a short lead.

In fact, according to the RSPB, more than half of England's most threatened bird species nest at or near ground level. Breeding season for ground-nesting birds runs from March until August, so taking care wherever you walk throughout spring and summer can help protect all sorts of birds – from curlews and nightjars to lapwings and golden plovers.

Little Green Space May 2024

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