The remarkable comeback of the peregrine falcon in Cheshire

In the 1960s, the fastest animal on the planet almost came to the brink of extinction in the UK. Today, the peregrine falcon has made a remarkable comeback, one that Cheshire Wildlife Trust's Tom Marshall witnessed at first hand

‘Someone has seen a peregrine falcon in their garden’, said our friendly volunteer on reception. OK, I thought, another one of the many slightly obscure and occasionally inaccurate wildlife reports we, and many of the UK’s 47 Wildlife Trusts receive every week.

So, had this sharp-eyed wildlife watcher simply seen a sparrowhawk or a kestrel, or had they really witnessed a visit by the Felix Baumgartner of the bird world in their back yard? Astonishingly, yes, the fastest animal on the planet was there in blurry pixels, a peregrine falcon dining al fresco on a local pigeon – just a stone’s throw from Chester.

The story of the peregrine is a fascinating one. It’s perhaps no more pertinent a story to tell than in 2012, 50 years after the publication of American writer Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which brought to light the effects of DDT chemical sprays in agriculture to the world, not least the shocking effects on our birds of prey.

In the UK, chemical use leading up to the 1950s and 1960s in our countryside had decimated the populations of some of our most iconic birds of prey, including the peregrine. By the 1960s, anyone who wanted to witness the dramatic free-fall hunting prowess of our largest falcon would have had to make a pilgrimage to the cliffy coasts of Wales, Scotland or the South West. Elsewhere, the peregrine was simply clinging on.

As the devastating impact of DDT began to be understood, its use was banned and a slow process of recovery could begin. What happened next, however, is one of the most intriguing examples of animals adapting to their environment in the last century.

Throughout their history, peregrine falcons have enjoyed residing in lofty high-rise locations throughout our uplands and coasts, where a prime vantage point made for an easy trip to catch a meal. The precipitous cliffs of our more rugged coastline were always a natural choice, with wide expanses to stoop and dive, and a ready supply of pigeons, seabirds or waders on the menu.

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In parallel with the loss of peregrines from inland areas, came an increase in tall buildings – the social housing regeneration attempts of the 1970s and 1980s, coal-fired power stations and other, more architecturally pleasing, additions to our major towns and cities. These, along with the skyline stalwarts of our churches and cathedrals offered an exciting new opportunity for peregrines.

I was lucky enough to witness this remarkable urban migration of our recovering raptors myself in the late 1990s, during a chance visit to the university library in Nottingham where I was studying conservation.

Strolling into the IT department, my eyes were drawn, along with those of a fellow student and birdwatcher to the corner of the 11 storey Newton Building in Nottingham city centre. ‘That looks bloody big for a pigeon,’ we both said almost simultaneously. A pair of binoculars was hastily retrieved from the requisite jalopy of our student car, and within seconds it was clear that our attention had been caught by a peregrine, calmly dining on one of the city’s numerous ‘flying rats’.

The find was soon reported to the local Wildlife Trust, and despite a university security guard later being the focus of the splash in the local paper claiming his ‘amazing discovery’, my friend and I knew we’d already witnessed the start of something special.

Today, in a fantastic change in fortunes for the peregrine falcon in just a few short decades, many of us can enjoy seeing these stunning birds in almost every major city across the UK. In Cheshire, the peregrine can not only be found at the traditional haunt of Beeston Castle (where regrettably egg-collecting remains a very real threat) but in recent years in Manchester, Chester and even the dizzy heights of a football stadium, and at the iconic Runcorn Bridge.

Advances in camera technology and programmes like Springwatch and Autumnwatch have also driven a desire for the public to have a window onto the lives of peregrine falcons, and the Wildlife Trusts have joined others such as the RSPB in offering a chance to watch peregrines through telescopes or in the comfort of your own home with live online web-streaming.

Wherever you enjoy this most magnificent of creatures; a windswept view in the uplands of the Peak District, chasing wading birds on the Dee or Mersey, or on your laptop at home, there’s no denying that despite coming to the very brink, the peregrine is back. For me, the finest memory will always be that first ever sighting in Nottingham, where you can now enjoy the fastest bird in the world from the comfort of the local pub. Mine’s a pint.

Where to see peregrine falcons in Cheshire

Beeston CastleDuring successful breeding seasons, you can watch the peregrines on the castle rock via video cameras viewable in the grounds. Take a stroll in the surrounding countryside for a chance to see the peregrines in action.

Trentabank reservoir, MacclesfieldCheshire Wildlife Trust’s reserve at Trentabank offers a great Peak District vista with the chance of ravens, kestrels, sparrowhawks and even occasional red kites. Peregrines frequent the uplands here and if you’re not lucky at the reserve viewpoint, try heading onto the hills to possibly see them in action.

The Dee and Mersey estuariesWinter wading bird flocks see peregrines move down from the uplands onto our estuaries for easy-pickings in the coldest months. Viewing points such as Wigg Island, Pickerings Pasture, Parkgate Marsh and Burton Mere Wetlands may all offer the opportunity to see peregrines in action, along with short-eared owls and our smallest bird of prey, the merlin.

Manchester, Exchange SquareThe RSPB operates peregrine viewing daily from April-July when the birds are present, with experts and optical equipment on hand to enhance your opportunity to see the birds.