Wildlife: Peregrine falcon

PUBLISHED: 09:00 23 June 2014

Peregrine falcon

Peregrine falcon

Paul Hobson

Paul Hobson reports on a wildlife success story...

A peregrine plucking a wood pigeonA peregrine plucking a wood pigeon

Have you ever seen a peregrine stoop at a woodpigeon or indeed at any other bird? At 200 miles an hour the peregrine is literally flying. I can only imagine what the sound of the wind must be like, the force of the air over the bird’s wings and the sting in its eyes. (I occasionally ride my old motorbike and know what 100mph feels like – I have to hang on for grim death with my eyes streaming! So 200mph – awesome!) This is one of the most incredible sights that the natural world can throw at you and thirty years ago it would have been virtually impossible to watch this amazing hunting strategy anywhere in Derbyshire. But right now, it’s really easy to get out and see it.

Peregrines are our largest falcon, the other three breeding falcons – the kestrel, merlin and hobby – are much smaller. Man has had a love–hate relationship with this bird for over a thousand years. We have marvelled at its hunting prowess and have used them in falconry, yet in the Second World War we destroyed dozens of pairs so that homing pigeons could bring back vital messages from the front. Worst of all, we waged war on them on two insidious fronts – one deliberately by direct persecution in order to increase the breeding of game birds, principally red grouse, and the other by inadvertently poisoning them with agricultural pesticides.

One thing I love about virtually all forms of wildlife is its incredible ability to bounce back and in some cases seemingly to forgive us and live cheek-by-jowl alongside us again. We quickly realised in the 1970s that something was going wrong with many of our birds of prey. Bizarrely the pigeon fanciers of Britain had asked the government if they could control the number of peregrines that they thought were robbing them of their expensive birds. It became apparent that no one really knew how many peregrines were actually left so a survey was carried out and the results were like a bombshell. Peregrines had disappeared from many of their former haunts and in terms of breeding they were doing really badly. The culprit for once was not direct persecution but a slow poisoning by very toxic and persistent pesticides, the organochlorines and DDT in particular. A voluntary ban was followed by a statutory one and peregrines as well as other raptors such as sparrowhawks started to recover. At this time there were no peregrines breeding in the whole of Derbyshire.

Relentless years of persecution meant that up until the 1980s it was virtually impossible to witness any peregrine activity in Derbyshire. However, in 1981 a pair took up residence in an ancient place where peregrines had bred in years gone by. This early pioneering pair needed some persistence. In the first year, snow ended their breeding attempt and during the next two years they were robbed of their eggs so, in their fourth breeding season, a watch was initiated. This proved successful and peregrines have never really looked back since.

The nesting box, with webcams, on Derby CathedralThe nesting box, with webcams, on Derby Cathedral

They now breed extensively throughout Derbyshire, though the pairs in the northern Dark Peak are still less successful than the many pairs which now breed in active and disused White Peak limestone quarries. These quarries are ideal as they recreate the beetling cliffs peregrines so adore. Ledges with loose material provide excellent places for them to scrape out their nesting place and the vantage point will give a view that ‘Escape to the Country’ would rave about. These quarries now also have nesting ravens, never the best of friends with peregrines but the old ravens’ nests are loved by the falcons as alternatives to ledges.

This success is heady stuff indeed and it would have been hard to top it but the peregrine has certainly done so. For such a perceived lover of wild places, urban cities seemed a bit off the beaten track. However, a growing number of peregrines now see our cities as incredible places to breed and live. Derby City peregrines are one of our county’s best wildlife experiences and can easily be enjoyed alongside a weekly shop. A pair showed interest in the cathedral in 2006. There seemed to be no really good place to lay their eggs so Nick Moyes and Nick Evans, with permission from the cathedral, erected a platform to give the birds a chance. Within days they were perching on it and in their first season raised a brood of youngsters. Now you can watch these stunning birds in real life or via webcam on your phone or in the comfort of your house. They have bred every year since.

This early success is now mirrored at Belper with a pair now breeding there. Across the UK there are now dozens of urban peregrines. Urban areas offer these incredible falcons all that they can ask for and more – the 24-hour city. It might seem that bright night lights and boozy brawls would be a bit of off-putting to such a wild bird but the new urban peregrines have taken to it like a duck to water!

Instead of interrupted sleep they are exploiting the new environment brilliantly and have learnt to hunt at night, particularly when there are a lot of night-time migrating birds. The diet of these urban peregrines might at first glance appear a little restricted – pigeons, pigeons and more pigeons! However, the total of different species scoffed by Derby’s birds has now grown to 53 and includes woodcock, quail, water rail, a variety of ducks, waxwing, swift, terns and jays. The variety is just staggering.

Peregrine falcolnPeregrine falcoln

We all love a wildlife success story and this is one to stand with the best. From total extinction at a county level we now have between 25 and 35 pairs breeding, raising over 50 fledglings per year. And with the new and so visible urban peregrines we can now watch that death defying 200mph stoop right in the heart of our cities. That is simply awesome!

Derby City Peregrines is a joint project with Derby Wildlife Trust, Derby Cathedral and Derby City Council. Visit www.derby.gov.uk/apps/peregrines

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