Spotting opsrey in Cheshire this Autumn

Osprey fishing, Andrew Mason

Osprey fishing, Andrew Mason - Credit: © 2011 Andrew Mason

Earlier this summer, an aerial icon dropped in for a spot of fishing on the Mersey – the osprey. Tom Marshall from the Cheshire Wildlife Trust looks back on this raptor’s remarkable story in the UK and where you might spot one this autumn

Monty, Dyfi male osprey - Photo Emyr Evans

Monty, Dyfi male osprey - Photo Emyr Evans - Credit: not Archant

There are quite a few pretenders to the crown when it comes to the anglers of the avian world. The kingfisher, of course, is a given. The agile mid-air twists and dagger-like precision of the terns too, or the out-and-out strength of the sea eagle.

But there is one bird that trumps them all when it comes to power accuracy and a level of almost unrivalled fishing skill – the osprey.

Ospreys don’t breed in Cheshire, which is why the arrival of such a magnificent African visitor in July was all the more spectacular and unusual, as it took up residence for a few weeks on the Mersey near Runcorn and Warrington.

These birds of prey – with a five foot wingspan – are however, no strangers to the region, as they pass through the North West on their spring migration northwards to Scotland and indeed in recent years, the Lake District and Wales too.

In mid-July though, most ospreys in their Scottish strongholds are busy raising a family, many increasingly under the watchful eye of millions on the internet. So the osprey that appeared in front of dozens of grateful eyes pinned to binoculars at Norton Marsh and Upper Moss Side was a surprise indeed, if cutting a rather forlorn figure that had probably been unsuccessful in securing an amorous liaison for the summer.

Cheshire’s visiting lovelorn osprey is something of a rarity though and today, the species remains one of the best-known success stories of British conservation. Driven to extinction in the UK by the early 1900s through a combination of direct persecution and egg collecting, the osprey remained absent from our skies for the better part of half a century, until a few pioneering Scandinavian birds once again made the tentative flight across the sea and began to visit former Scottish haunts once again.

Fortunately, much had changed in those subsequent generations and when ospreys once again decided to set up a high-res residence in the Scottish Highlands, the crosshairs were this time focused on protection. Barbed wire and round-the-clock watches became the order of the day and by the mid-1960s, the species was firmly back on the British list, despite the unabated efforts of a minority of illegal egg collectors still determined to scrub the osprey out of history in the pursuit of personal gratification.

It was an even bolder decision to take the birds’ protection to an as yet unprecedented level that may have in fact been the start of the ospreys’ real resurgence, as pioneering naturalist Roy Dennis made a bid not for greater security, but to open up this ornithological Fort Knox to the wider public.

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This ground-breaking decision which has led to myriad wildlife cameras and TV series like Springwatch that we enjoy today, was at the time considered almost unthinkable, but may well have been the ospreys’ saviour.

Slowly but surely, with thousands of eyes focused on the original iconic Loch Garden nest and dozens more in local communities home to ospreys across Scotland, the ospreys’ revival was set in motion. Today, visitors who watch ospreys are measured in the millions – as are the financial boosts to the Highlands, Lake District and East Midland’s economies.

Although those forbears of the latest generation of ospreys mapped their own journey back from the brink in Scotland, we too, have given the osprey a helping hand in returning to new areas of the UK like the East Midlands.

The 1990s saw young osprey chicks relocated from bumper broods elsewhere to Rutland Water, where Roy Dennis teamed up with Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust and Anglian Water to create a new home for the osprey at one of our largest man-made wetlands. After growing into adults in their new surroundings, those first young ospreys and several years of subsequent youngsters would eventually return to the reservoir, and the site now boasts a steadily growing population.

Perhaps rather ironically, that same first year of breeding success at Rutland Water also coincided with the unexpected return of the osprey completely naturally to the Lake District, another location where they remain today, along with the Dyfi Valley in Wales.

So could the osprey one day return to Cheshire too? Although the region doesn’t boast the extensive lochs and lakes they have further north, our estuaries and rivers are improving in their water health year-on-year and long-staying ospreys like this recent summer visitor seem to show there is good fishing to be had. One of the world’s most widespread species, ospreys are equally likely to nest in coastal areas and so are by no means restricted to the likes of Scottish lochs or Cumbrian and Lake District valleys.

Often it takes just a little persuasion, which is why in many areas artificial nesting platforms and fishing posts are introduced into areas that have potential for breeding ospreys. This strategy has recently paid dividends in the mosslands of Cumbria where ospreys have bred at Foulshaw Moss south of Kendal for the first time. Not to be outdone, similar platforms were put in place on the Mersey in the mid-2000s after another osprey took a summer holiday in the area back in 2005.

So with a little patience and perhaps a helping hand from us, there’s every chance that this king of fishers might one day come back to take a throne in Cheshire too.

Norton Marsh/Upper Moss Side/Moore Nature Reserve – Runcorn and Warrington

This group of nature reserves managed by organisations including the Forestry Commission and FCC Environment boast good views across the Mersey estuary and extensive wetlands where ospreys may drop in to fish. Look out for Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s native-breed English Longhorn cattle at Norton Marsh.

The Dee estuary – Neston

Parkgate Marsh and Burton Mere Wetlands looked after by the RSPB also have wetlands that might prove irresistible to a hungry osprey passing south.

Marbury Country Park – Northwich

This large mere, which is also home to Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Marbury Reedbed reserve, offers plenty of fishing opportunities across a large expanse of water.

Osprey fact file

• One of the ospreys’ front three talons can be retracted backwards, allowing it to grip and carry fish in the most streamlined and efficient way – face first.

• They breed from North America to the coast of Australia and are one the world’s most widespread species.

• After their initial maiden migration from Britain to Africa, they won’t return to breed for around three years.

• Nesting ospreys in the Lake District in 2001 signalled a return to England after a 150 year absence.

• During the winter, breeding pairs part company but come together again in the spring in exactly the same territory and often nest, used the previous year.

• For more on ospreys, other UK wildlife and events near you this September visit the Cheshire Wildlife Trust website at or follow them on Twitter or Facebook.