The return of the raptor: it’s hard to believe these exciting birds of prey are back in our skies

First the red kite, next the osprey: rewilding with keystone species could lead to a recovery in multiple habitats and other species

Almost every day on our farm in Co Wicklow, I gaze transfixed as a red kite drifts lazily overhead, cruising down from the forest on the hill to search the fields for potential prey. Rarely flapping its long wings, this elegant raptor floats with apparent ease on the wind, its distinctive forked tail rotating like the rudder on a glider for direction control.

I still find it hard to believe that these exciting birds of prey are back in our skies centuries after they became extinct due to poisoning and persecution. The reintroduction sites were on another farm and a small woodland, not far from where I live. The first young birds to be brought in from Wales in 2007 were kept there in simple wooden cages for a few weeks, until the great day came for their release into the wild. I remember watching with mounting excitement as these magnificent birds took to the Irish skies for the first time in several centuries.

The reintroduction of lost species is seen today as a key element in the process of rewilding the landscape. Probably the most celebrated example of this is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park. Ten years after release, the combined packs there had reached well over 300 animals, and the beneficial effects on the park ecosystem were clear to see. Elk numbers declined but, more significantly, their grazing patterns changed as they avoided dense tree cover to lower the risk of ambush by wolves. This led to the recovery of aspen, willow and cottonwood trees.

Released from grazing the enhanced growth of the riverside woodlands led to the recovery of aquatic life and the increase in wolf kills benefited a whole range of scavengers such as grizzly bear, cougar, wolverine and raven. This natural process is known as a “tropic cascade”, in which one keystone species can bring about a recovery in multiple habitats and other species.


By the 18th century the osprey was already in steep decline and a century later it was known here only as a rare visitor

As top predators, birds of prey are likely to perform a similar keystone function to wolves, albeit on a smaller scale, by reducing the abundance of middle predators and scavengers such as foxes and crows.

The return of the osprey is a well-known success story in Britain. Once exterminated, they returned of their own accord to Scotland and have since spread widely with help from the conservation bodies. By moving young birds to other areas they have become established on a number of lakes and reservoirs throughout Britain, where there are now more than 240 breeding pairs. There are similar reintroduction programmes in many other European countries.

The osprey was once common in Ireland. This formidable bird of prey, which has a wingspan of up to 160cm, feeds exclusively on fish and hunts in both freshwater and saltwater. It performs spectacular dives, lifting the fish from the surface of the water with specially adapted talons.

Bones of this species, dating from the 10th or 11th century, were found in excavations at Fishamble Street in Dublin, suggesting they may have bred near the Liffey. Giraldus Cambrensis gave a very accurate description of the bird and its hunting behaviour in his Natural History and Topography of Ireland in the 12th century. There are many other later mentions of the osprey, but by the 18th century it was already in steep decline and a century later it was known here only as a rare visitor.

Given the successful reintroduction of white-tailed eagles to this country, the prospects for the osprey are good

The Scottish and Scandinavian breeding ospreys migrate through Ireland to their wintering grounds in west Africa. I have vivid memories of watching one hunt for grey mullet on the estuary of Broadlough in Co Wicklow. Last March the National Parks and Wildlife Service announced that it was working with its counterparts in Norway to prepare for reintroduction of the osprey to Ireland after an absence of about 250 years. At least 50 osprey fledglings will be released in the southeast over a period of five years. The hope is they will establish a breeding population in Ireland and will return every year after their long migration from west Africa.

Given the successful reintroduction of white-tailed eagles to this country and their preference for also hunting in lakes where there are plenty of fish, the prospects for the osprey are good. It might add one more cog in the damaged wheel of nature that urgently needs repair.

Richard Nairn is an ecologist and author of Wild Woods (2020) and Wild Shores (2022), both published by Gill Books