World's fastest bird making a comeback

06 Mar 2018 | No. 2018-04

The latest population estimate, just published, shows that the breeding numbers of Peregrine Falcon in the UK have hit a historic high, with particularly large increases in England.

In a paper, just published in the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) journal Bird Study, scientists analysed the results from the 2014 Peregrine survey with the aim of producing an up-to-date population estimate for this aerial hunter, and the findings are interesting.

The survey estimates the breeding population at 1,769 pairs, 22% larger than found in the previous Peregrine survey, which was carried out in 2002. This is largely thanks to population increases in lowland areas, particularly in England, where many Peregrines are now breeding on man-made structures. Out of around 500 monitored pairs in England, just over a quarter were on buildings, pylons, or other man-made sites. The majority of these were in areas where a lack of suitable nesting crags would once have resulted in Peregrines being scarce or absent. However, despite the success of Peregrines in these newly colonised areas, they are not doing so well in all parts of the UK.

The number of breeding Peregrines estimated for England is almost twice that reported in 2002, whilst in Wales the population is stable. On the Isle of Man and in Scotland, Peregrine numbers fell but there was a slight increase in Northern Ireland. Further investigation showed that it wasn’t quite as simple as this though.

Within Scotland and England, trends varied between different regions. In both countries, populations in upland regions showed the greatest declines, whilst the regions that experienced the largest increases within the UK were in eastern England. In East Anglia, the Peregrine population increased from no pairs to an estimated 44 pairs between the two surveys. The Channel Islands were covered in this survey for the first time, with an estimated total of 16 breeding pairs found, probably covering the majority of breeding pairs on the islands.

Mark Wilson, lead author on the paper and Research Ecologist at BTO Scotland, said, “The UK holds a significant proportion of the European Peregrine population, and the reverse in fortunes of this incredible bird since the lows of the 1960s is great news for conservation. However, Peregrines remain exposed to a wide range of factors that could impact their population, particularly at a regional level. Peregrines in many upland areas are now faring more poorly than their lowland counterparts. It is thanks to the hard work of hundreds of volunteers who took part in the 2014 survey that we have a better idea of how these birds are doing and where there might still be pressures.”

Factors limiting upland Peregrine populations probably vary between different regions. They are thought to include ongoing illegal killing and deliberate disturbance, and changes in food supply caused by decreased availability of prey in some upland areas.

Eileen Stuart Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) Head of Policy and Advice, said, "Peregrines are spectacular birds which have been closely monitored by volunteers and organisations for decades in Scotland. It's good to see the number of Peregrines in some lowland areas increasing, but it's disappointing to see a decline in the uplands - particularly when the UK overall picture is positive. In the northwest, there has been a longer term decline with changes to food supply and exposure to environmental pollutants likely still to be affecting these birds. In some other areas, illegal persecution has been an issue, which we, along with our partners in PAW Scotland (Protection Against Wildlife Crime Scotland), have been working hard to combat. As part of this the Scottish Government has also set up the working group to review all aspects of grouse moor management.”

Notes to editors
1. For access to the full paper - The breeding population of Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus in the United Kingdom, Isle of Man and Channel Islands in 2014

2. The 6th UK Peregrine survey was funded by Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural England, Countryside Council for Wales (now Natural Resources Wales) and Northern Ireland Environment Agency. BTO was supported in organising and carrying out this survey by hundreds of volunteers. These included individuals involved in long-term studies of Peregrines, and members of raptor study groups, many of whom also played a crucial role in delivering the survey on the ground. The survey organisers also thank landowners and organisations representing them for facilitating access and supporting the survey

3. Bird Study is the Journal of the British Trust for Ornithology. Bird Study publishes high quality papers relevant to the sphere of interest of the British Trust for Ornithology: broadly, field ornithology, especially related to evidence-based bird conservation.  Papers are especially welcome on: patterns of distribution and abundance, movements, habitat preferences, developing field census methods, ringing and other techniques for marking and tracking birds.

4. The BTO is the UK's leading bird research charity. A growing membership and up to 60,000 volunteer birdwatchers contribute to the BTO's surveys, collecting information that underpins conservation action in the UK. The BTO maintains a staff of 100 at its offices in Thetford, Stirling, Bangor (Wales) and Bangor (Northern Ireland), who analyse and publicise the results of surveys and projects. The BTO's work is funded by BTO supporters, government, trusts, industry and conservation organisations. 

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