Walk on the wild side


WITH less than 400 breeding pairs in Britain, the goshawk is one of the rarest and most persecuted of this country’s birds of prey.

However, the dense conifer forests and woodland that cover much of the Borders and Southern Scotland make the area one of two Scottish strongholds of this large hawk.

England also has two major population centres for goshawks, with one being just over the border in the Kielder Water & Forest Park – the other is the Forest of Dean.

Next month, the Forestry Commission will host a special trek at Kielder to see the amazing goshawk ‘skydance’, when frisky males take to the wing to impress potential partners.

Reaching almost buzzard size, the goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) has a fierce expression with bright red eyes and a distinctive white eyebrow. Broad, blunt wings and a wide tail enable it to hunt at high speed, weaving in and out of trees, while its long legs and talons can catch prey in flight.

Medium-sized birds such as wood pigeons, pheasants, and even kestrels, and mammals such as squirrels and rabbits, together with amphibians and repitiles make up the mainstay of a goshawk’s varied diet.

Once widespread throughout Britain, the goshawk became extinct in the late 19th century due to deforestation followed by brutal persecution.

But they were reintroduced in the 1960s and 1970s by falconers and hawk-keepers who brought birds over from Finland and the rest of Scandanavia.

Although now legally protected, monitoring the fortunes of goshawks can be tough compared with owls, peregrines and even ospreys.

Their habit of using several different nest sites at the same time make the birds very elusive. Former Lothian and Borders Police wildlife officer, Malcolm Henderson, now the goshawk co-ordinator for the region’s raptor study group, says the birds are faring well on Forestry Commission land in Scotland.

“Forestry Commission land is a good reserve for goshawks and their population is fairly stable in these areas. But when the juvenile birds spread out and end up on private land, then you tend to find a lot of persecution occurring.”

Last summer, while involved in checking goshawk nest sites along the Tweed, Malcolm found several goshawk chicks blasted to death by shotgun.

While Malcolm montitors goshawk populations on private land, Tony Lightely, the environment and heritage manager for the Forestry Commission in the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway, feeds in data to the Borders Goshawk Study Group on how these magnificent hawks are faring on Commission property in southern Scotland.

He says the first confirmed breeding attempt after the birds were reintroduced to Britain in the 1960s came in 1972, with a successful hatching of chicks in the Kielder region in 1977.

“Since then that population has expanded, although not dramatically,” Tony told us this week. “By 1987 there were 31 pairs and four years later that had increased to 44 pairs.”

Extensive work is carried out by Tony and his Forestry Commission colleagues to monitor goshawks, ring chicks and ensure nest sites on the Scottish side of the border are not disturbed by felling operations.

“Where possible, stands of timber containing nest sites are left well past their sell-by date, so we know where these birds are. Forestry operations are managed to keep disturbance to a minimum during the breeding season,” he said.

“Certain areas are also put aside for goshawks, as Forestry Commission birds are the core breeding population of goshawks in the UK.”

A total of 27 Commission nest sites in Scotland are checked annually and last year 14 of these saw successful fledging of goshawk chicks.

Next month’s goshawk treks at Kielder provide a unique opportunity to see this magnificent bird of prey. The three-hour walks set out from Kielder Castle at 9am on March 10 and 24.

Booking is essential, so contact 01434 220242. For more information visit www.visitkielder.com

z Friends of Kailzie Wildlife would like us to point out that although the wildlife filming and editing course which we highlighted last week runs for five weeks, individual parts of the course can be booked separately as stand-alone activities. Call Eddie on 0785 825 3917.