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by Malcolm Ogilvie

The Peregrine is the subject of a national census this summer (2002), the first since 1991, when there were 1,283 pairs in Britain and Northern Ireland. This was almost certainly the highest population since records were first gathered and represented an increase of no less than 67% over the total found in the previous census, in 1981. At that time, only 20 years ago, the Peregrines of Britain were still recovering from the population crash of the early 1960s, when organo-chlorine pesticides took such a terrible toll and the population fell to little more than 400 pairs, less than half that of the 1930s. Indeed, it was probably not until 1985 that numbers reached the pre-war levels.

As the population has increased, so it has expanded, with breeding birds returning to many areas which had long been abandoned, as well as occurring in some new places, too. One noticeable feature of recent years has been the number of pairs breeding in town and city centres, the birds nesting on convenient ledges on tall buildings or on other man-made structures. This is not a new habit, it was recorded 200 years ago on Salisbury Cathedral, but it has certainly become more common in recent years. At the time of the 1991 national census, just four such sites were known, by the end of 1999, that total had risen to at least 27, including on pylons, buildings, chimneys, radio masts, a bridge and a church tower.

Some of these sites are very well known and have featured in the national press, as well as being reported in the relevant county bird report, a refreshing change from the usual situation where sites have to be kept secret because of the risk of persecution. One such breeding pair is in Brighton, on the top of Sussex Heights, a 24-storey block of flats over 100 m high. During the mid-1990s, a pair of Peregrines began to frequent the town, particularly the pier and adjacent buildings, but either there was no suitable ledge or there was too much disturbance. The Sussex Ornithological Society, in conjunction with the RSPB, came up with the idea of placing a nestbox on one of the buildings and to everyone's delight, the pair quickly adopted it and began breeding there in 1998 and have carried on each year since.

As just mentioned, persecution remains the greatest problem facing the Peregrine, and the illegal activity takes a number of forms. These include egg collectors, though the increasing population means that the rarity value that attracts such people has waned, and those who take eggs and young to establish a captive breeding stock to then sell for falconry, often overseas. Gamekeepers on some sporting estates still kill Peregrines, along with other raptors, and destroy their nests, because they cannot tolerate the predation on game birds. And racing pigeon fanciers accuse them of taking their birds, though changing the routes and timing of some races has proved successful in reducing potential losses. A recent report of poisoned pigeons being found pegged out close to Peregrine eyries in Wales was almost certainly the work of pigeon fanciers. However, despite the efforts of these criminals, the Peregrine is flourishing and further increases in the numbers of this magnificent bird in at least some parts of the country can be expected when the results of this year's census are known.

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Dr Ogilvie is a natural history writer and editor, formerly a research scientist with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and resident on the island of Islay since 1986. Until 1997, a member of the 'British Birds' editorial board and also one of the editorial team which produced 'Birds of the Western Palearctic'.