The return of the osprey to historical breeding territories in the Highlands of Scotland was probably the major conservation success story of the 20th Century. Ruthlessly harried by egg and specimen collectors, the last breeding record in Speyside had been at Loch an Eilean in 1899. Though landowners and gamekeepers had also contributed to its demise, a small number of them realised that the species made little threat to game interests and this probably helped it to cling on at remoter locations and it remained breeding at Loch Arkaig until 1908, where a single bird turned up annually until 1913. Apart from the occasional record subsequently, the hand of man had effectively eliminated the osprey as a breeding species in Scotland. Philip Brown and George Waterston provide full historical accounts (1962, 1979).

In the early 1950s there were occasional reports of wandering birds in Speyside, but nothing to suggest that birds had been breeding until it was revealed that a pair had bred successfully in 1954. At this time the RSPB and the Scottish Ornithologists� Club, aware that other breeding attempts were likely, had been galvanised into action and ‘Operation Osprey’, run with military precision, came into being. Egg collectors remained a major threat and the dedicated band of volunteers led by George Waterston had to endure a series of setbacks and disappointments before the next pair successfully bred in 1959. Expansion from these early successes was a slow process and after 10 years only 4 pairs were established. After 20 years the number of pairs had increased to 22.

Philip Brown has suggested that by the beginning of the 19th century, ospreys were breeding regularly in a number of Scottish counties including Dumbarton, Kirkudbright, Stirlingshire, Argyll and Kinross although trying to estimate the size of the population was more challenging. During the re-colonisation it was interesting to observe the number of historical sites which were steadily re-occupied. By 2003 it was estimated there were 162 breeding pairs, with the Highland area and Tayside the major strongholds. More recently breeding birds have also become established in the Borders and Galloway and by 2011 the national population had reached 202 known pairs. Through the Highland Wildlife Foundation young Scottish birds have been successfully translocated for a reintroduction effort in England (see www.ospreys.org.uk); by any standards this is a tremendous achievement. Though most of the early pioneers who set up ‘Operation Osprey’ have since passed on, it is unlikely they could ever have imagined the tremendous legacy they were providing. The RSPB have been pivotal to this success and sustained their early commitment throughout. They, along with the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Forestry Commission Scotland, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Scottish National Trust have provided public viewing facilities which have been used by many thousands of visitors, but perhaps more importantly, have stimulated a wider interest in birds and conservation issues.

By any standards this is a spectacular bird of prey. It is little wonder the osprey has captured the hearts and minds of the general public and become such a Scottish icon. Members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group continue to play a key part in this success story by monitoring, building artificial eyries and the protection of nest sites.

Keith Brockie


Brown, P. (1979). The Scottish Ospreys. Heinemann, London.

Brown, P. and Waterston, G. (1962). The Return of the Osprey. Collins, London.

Carrs, D.N. and Brockie, K. (1994). Prey remains at osprey nests in Tayside and Grampian 1987-1993. Scottish Birds 17: 132-145.

Dennis, R.H. (1983). Population studies and conservation of ospreys in Scotland. In Bird, D.M. (Ed.). Biology and Management of Bald Eagles and Ospreys. Harpell Press, Quebec, Canada. Pp. 207-214.

Dennis, R.H. (1991). Ospreys. Colin Baxter Photography Ltd., Grantown-on-Spey.

Dennis, R.H. (1995). Ospreys Pandion haliaetus in Scotland – a study of recolonization. Vogelwelt 116: 193-196.

Dennis, R.H. (2002). Osprey (Pandion haliaetus). In Wernham, C., Toms, M., Marchant, J., Clark, J., Siriwardena, G. and Baillie, S. (Eds.). The Migration Atlas: Movements of the Birds of Britain and Ireland. Poyser, London. Pp. 243-254.

Dennis, R.H. (2007). OspreyIn Forrester, R.W., Andrews, I.J., McInerny, C.J., Murray, R.D., McGowan, R.Y., Zonfrillo, B., Betts, M.W., Jardine, D.C. and Grundy, D.S. (Eds.). The Birds of Scotland. The Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, Aberlady. Pp. 487-491.

Dennis, R.H. (2008). A Life of Ospreys. Whittles Publishing, Caithness.

Dennis, R.H. and McPhie, F.A. (2003). Growth of the Scottish osprey (Pandion haliaetus) population. In Thompson, D.B.A., Redpath, S.M., Fielding, A.H., Marquiss, M. and Galbraith, C.A. (Eds.). Birds of Prey in a Changing Environment. The Stationery Office, Edinburgh. Pp. 163-171.

Poole, A.F. (1989). Ospreys: A Natural and Unnatural History. Cambridge University Press.

Scottish Raptors• Honey-Buzzard• Red Kite• White-Tailed Eagle• Marsh Harrier
Hen Harrier• Goshawk• Sparrowhawk• Common Buzzard• Golden Eagle
Osprey• Kestrel• Merlin• Hobby• Peregrine Falcon• Barn Owl
Tawny Owl• Long-eared Owl• Short-eared Owl• Raven