Ospreys Breed in Ireland for the First Time in More Than 200 Years

The birds were driven to local extinction in the 18th century, but the new chicks provide hope for a comeback amid reintroduction efforts

Osprey flying
One of the adult ospreys in the breeding pair © Giles Knight via Ulster Wildlife

A pair of ospreys has successfully bred in Ireland for the first time in 200 years, according to a statement from local conservation organization Ulster Wildlife. The birds produced at least two—possibly three—chicks at a confidential location in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. 

The family was discovered by Giles Knight, an environmental farming scheme advisor with Ulster Wildlife, who has been observing the pair since they arrived at the site in 2021. But for years, he kept quiet about the ospreys, in hopes that they could remain undisturbed. When he finally spotted the chicks, Knight was overcome with excitement.

“It was a rub-your-eyes, once-in-a-lifetime moment; an absolute highlight of my 30-year wildlife career—like finding long-lost treasure,” he says in the statement. “With at least two of the chicks fledging this season, this is a huge conservation success story and indicates a healthy wetland ecosystem with plenty of suitable habitat and fish to bring this apex predator back to our skies and plunging into the Fermanagh Lakelands.”

Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) are large, white-and-brown raptors found in every continent except Antarctica. Since they eat fish almost exclusively, the birds are commonly spotted near bodies of water. Osprey pairs tend to mate for life and usually return to the same nest area each year. Females will lay two to four eggs, and the chicks will fledge roughly 55 days after hatching. 

Worldwide, ospreys are a species of “least concern,” with an increasing population trend, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. However, the birds are on the United Kingdom’s Amber list, which means their conservation status is of moderate concern. 

In Ireland, ospreys are thought to have been driven to local extinction around the late 18th century because of “systematic persecution,” per Ulster Wildlife. Across the U.K., hunters killed ospreys for taxidermy, collectors gathered their eggs and the birds’ nests were destroyed. The last recorded osprey nesting attempt in Ireland was in 1779, writes the Ireland-based conservation group Golden Eagle Trust on Facebook.

While breeding ospreys have disappeared from the country, visiting ospreys sometimes rest there as they migrate between Northern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. In an attempt to build back the raptors’ breeding population, Ireland’s National Parks and Wildlife Service moved forward this summer with its osprey reintroduction program, which will relocate 50 to 70 chicks from Norway over a five-year period.

Ireland has previously seen success with raptor reintroduction. Between 2007 and 2011, 100 young white-tailed eagles were released in Killarney National Park. The first breeding from the program occurred in 2012 on Lough Derg, County Clare. More chicks successfully fledged in later years.

The new breeding pair of ospreys, however, is not the result of a reintroduction initiative. “The ospreys have returned by themselves and restored another lost icon of the Irish landscape,” writes the Golden Eagle Trust.

The raptors have a long heritage in Ireland, with locations around the country named after them—such as Osprey Rock in Killarney National Park, writes Anne Lucey for the Irish Times.

Marc Ruddock, with the Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group, calls the osprey chicks “truly brilliant news” in the statement. 

“Now these birds are back in Ireland and breeding successfully, it is critical that they are left in peace so their numbers can continue to grow by returning year on year to breed,” Knight says in the statement. “We believe and hope that this could be the start of a raptor dynasty.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.