Roger Ratcliffe: Country & Coast

There aren’t many express trains zipping past Malham Cove, but if there were we could see for ourselves the astonishing aerial powers of the peregrine. It is said to be capable of overtaking trains travelling at 200 miles per hour and would leave planet earth’s fastest mammal - the cheetah - looking as slow as a tortoise.

A peregrine falcon in flight.

Since 2003, peregrines have been nesting at Malham and showing off their extraordinary flying abilities over the green and white limestone terrain.

As of the weekend a pair of these charismatic birds of prey had three chicks, known as eyeasses, and the joint Peregrine Watch operation mounted by the Yorkshire Dales National Park and the RSPB has made the nest 250ft up on the sheer cliffs one of the area’s top tourist attractions.

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There have been almost 200,000 visitors in the past decade and it’s easy to understand why watching them is so popular. They are unfazed by people gawping at them through high-powered telescopes or by rock climbers on the other side of the cove.

Even the loud rumbles of RAF jets on training exercise fail to ruffle their feathers. As one warden put it to me a few years back, these birds are the Top Guns of the bird world and afraid of nothing.

The peregrines’ shock-and-awe on local wildlife is what provides visitors with the greatest entertainment.

Besides rabbits, woodpigeons and stock doves they have also been known to kill curlews and - last week - a great spotted woodpecker.

The dead prey is taken to one of four or five ‘larder’ ledges to be butchered up into small morsels ready for feeding to the hungry chicks.

The peregrine was once known in Yorkshire as the perry-hawk. It went into a steep decline when agricultural chemicals made their eggs infertile and they were subjected to persecution. Their nests were raided by egg collectors, their chicks were stolen for falconry and some birds were killed by gamekeepers. Even pigeon fanciers hunted them down, blaming peregrines for eating their fastest racing birds.

During the Second World War killing them was actually seen as an act of patriotism. The birds were blamed for preying on carrier pigeons used to convey top secret messages for the Royal Air Force.

More than 600 birds were killed in one of the more unsung operations of the war. Many were on the south coast of England, and whatever blue birds were seen over the White Cliffs of Dover they certainly weren’t peregrines.

The bird was wiped out in Yorkshire by the 1960s but returned to breed again in 1977, and I was invited to visit the 24-hour guard placed on its nest in a remote north-west corner of the Yorkshire Dales on condition I did not disclose the location.

How different things are today. Peregrines nest all over Yorkshire.

There are at least 30 nests, and another site which has become highly popular with the public is one on the top of St George’s Church at the University of Sheffield.