Movie bird in search of a happy ending

Kestrel in flight
Kestrel in flight
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A hovering kestrel is unmistakable to most of us, but this once common bird of prey now finds itself in serious trouble. Liam Creedon reports.

Spotting a kestrel hovering above the carriageway, oblivious to the traffic screaming by just metres below, can always be relied upon to break up the monotony of a motorway journey.

Rapt in acute, unbreakable concentration, the bird seems to cheat the laws of physics, remaining motionless in the buffeting wind, never deterred from the task of scouring intently for its next fast-food fix of field vole.

The incredible hovering technique described by poet Ted Hughes as “steady as a hallucination in the streaming air”, is made possible by countless minute adjustments and is an aerobatic display surpassed by no other bird.

But over the last few years their cruciform shapes suspended above the roadside have begun to disappear. They have disappeared too from our parks, villages, playing fields and un-loved wastelands.

For the kestrel has quietly, and without much media fanfare for such a well-known bird, suffered an alarming population collapse.

The bird has declined by around 30 per cent in the last 25 years alone and is now listed as a species of conservation concern across Europe.

The falcon was, until recently, our most common and well-known bird of prey.

Affections for it soared following Barry Hines’s hugely successful 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave which charted the relationship between an alienated teenager and his pet kestrel. Ken Loach’s film Kes, based upon Hines’s book, cemented the kestrel’s place in the nation’s heart.

The kestrel was seen as approachable and knowable, unlike the psychotic staring sparrowhawk and the all too rare peregrine.

The kestrel’s dramatic decline is doubly shocking as it was viewed as a species that had managed to adapt to the rapid modernisation of our landscape. The bird lived in our towns and cities and even managed to hunt in the most inhospitable strips of land between our very fastest roads.

The reason for the decline is unclear but our willingness to farm the kestrel out of the landscape, a fate that has befallen many other species, is likely to be a major factor.

Matt Stevens, from the Hawk Conservancy Trust, explains: “It’s difficult to be certain but there are a number of possible reasons.

“The most likely is a change in land management. Changing agricultural practices and agricultural intensification is likely to have had a major effect. Increased stocking densities of sheep and cattle on grasslands reduces grass length and results in fewer numbers of the small mammals Kestrels prey upon.

“The reduction of wild flower populations results in fewer insects and seeds which again means fewer small mammals for the kestrel.

“Other factors include loss of hunting and nesting sites and widespread use of pesticides, which reduces populations of ‘weed’ species and invertebrates, which then impacts on species dependent on them for food. We have also seen a loss of rougher marginal land which previously held populations of invertebrates and small mammals.”

It was this rough marginal land that made our motorway verges so attractive to habitat-starved kestrels in the first place – they presented long strips of undisturbed grassland teeming with their favourite food, field voles.

But can the fate of our kestrels be reversed?

Stevens thinks there’s still hope.

“A goal of halting the decline and maintaining a healthy population of kestrels is perhaps the most suitable approach and one which may allow for an increase in the future,” he explains.

“A reversal of the decline of kestrels is also likely to be reliant on a change in the way the UK landscape is managed.

“Greater importance will need to be placed on the quality of, and connectivity between, habitats to ensure that populations of all native flora and fauna improve.”

As ever with our wildlife, it seems farmers may hold the key to the kestrels’ future, but in the meantime you can do your bit from the passenger seat too.

The public is being asked to send in their kestrel sightings to the Hawk Conservancy Trust to help build up the overall picture of how these wonderful falcons are faring.

To count a kestrel visit Kestrel Count runs until next year.