Local people making their corner of rural Britain unique
Saturday 26 August 2006
Ospreys and Loch Garten, Scotland
Over centuries, the osprey was persecuted to the brink of extinction in Britain, but in the 1950s, after a forty year absence, it returned to Loch Garten in Scotland to breed again. Ornithologist and conservationist Roy Dennis was there in the early days and is still heavily involved in the work to ensure the survival and expansion of the osprey population. On the shores of Lochindorb, twenty five miles to the south east of Inverness, he and Helen wait in the hope of seeing this great fisher dive into the waters.
Alf McGregor works for the Rothiemurchus estate, and for him, the sight of an osprey has become almost commonplace. The estate has a long association with the bird, the Grant family having guarded it as long ago as the mid-nineteenth century. Egg collecting had become fashionable, and although ospreys would nest on a castle on an island in the centre of Loch an Eilean, nest robbers like Lewis Dunbar would think it worth risking their lives in the icy waters. The ospreys were driven away and have never returned.
Loch Garten is the heartland of the osprey story, and here Roy Dennis and RSPB staff ring two chicks from one of this year's successful nests. With the female circling overhead, Roy checks the young birds' condition, weighing, measuring and ringing them before they're returned to the nest, ready to migrate when the time comes.
As do many thousands of other people every year, Helen goes to the RSPB centre at Loch Garten, where, since 1959, visitors have been encouraged to come and view the birds from a distance, satisfying their desire for a view of the osprey while leaving the birds in peace. One of the wardens, Yvonne Malcolm, shows Helen the CCTV images of the nest, the chicks calling for fish, the male passing by only briefly with food before heading off once more to hunt. Only half of each year's chicks might survive their first migration, but those that do will return year after year to this same area to breed, the males in particular drawn back to their homeland. Richard Thaxton is the RSPB site manager at Loch Garten and has seen at first hand how intensely emotional it can be for visitors to witness the beauty and the power of the osprey. For him, his job is all about introducing people to the marvel of birds and wildlife, and he believes that the osprey's history - from near extinction at the hand of man to enduring breeding success - has a uniquely powerful impact.
For Kate McKinley, there are real parallels between the birds' and her own story. Instinct made her move north from Somerset to Scotland in November last year, and she says she sometimes feels as vulnerable as the young chicks she saw ringed at Loch Garten. As Roy describes how ospreys pass knowledge from one generation to the next, she finds an echo in her own experience: in order to fit in to the place she'd chosen as home, she realised that she had to blend in, to wait for a lead from people who'd lived there longer, and to add something positive to the community. In doing that, she's made new friends, and the osprey's story has in some ways become her own.
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