Imagine if there were fewer than three hundred robin nests in the whole of the British Isles. Questions would be asked, letters would be written to the Times, and the price of Christmas cards would go through the roof.
Yet, although ospreys have been one of the conservation success stories here, that is the situation with them. There are still fewer breeding pairs of ospreys than there are of golden eagles, choughs, hen harriers, or many other species that are regarded as “rare”. Ospreys may be recovering as a population, but they have not by any means recovered yet – despite the over-complacent view put forward by major bird charities and certain well-known TV presenters. Across the whole of Europe, best estimates of osprey numbers are between nine and ten thousand – and that’s a scary low figure for such a huge geographical area.
Why is this important?
Ecologists regard ospreys as a key “indicator species.” As with many specialist apex predators such as otters, seals and pine martens, their whole lifestyle depends on a complex and diverse food web. If ospreys are to be present, it means that the area supporting them must be in good health and ecological balance – clean rivers, varied (and mature) tree cover, and productive seas. This does not mean that ospreys can only exist in virgin wilderness: in many places they live happily in association with people – provided that the people concerned haven’t messed the whole place up beyond redemption.
The Dyfi valley is a good example….
Beautiful, isn’t it? Yet almost everything we can see here is the result of man’s handiwork, and even the river itself no longer runs in its former course.
There’s an increasingly popular view that, if only we would leave Nature alone to “get on with it”, then wildlife would thrive and everything would be fine. Well, the inconvenient truth is that – here in the UK at any rate – that train left the station several hundred years ago and it ain’t coming back any time soon.