Nature

The Fisher King

The story of the osprey’s return to Whinlatter Forest
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The approach to Bassenthwaite lake from the south is pure drama. Flanked by the mighty Helvellyn to the east and the rugged beauty of Thirlmere Reservoir to the west, you can’t help but feel the sheer sense of scale that marks out the north eastern Lake District as distinct from the rest of England.

It’s almost like you’ve strayed further up the country than intended, up into the wild lochs and crags of northern Scotland – the very terrain that, in spring 1954, saw the return of a remarkable bird to British shores a century after it was driven to extinction. Given the similarity in scenery, ornithologists secretly hoped that one day the osprey might slip southwards and re-colonise this corner of England too. And eventually it did. In 2001, an osprey appeared over Bassenthwaite, fishing for trout again, just as its kind once had in this landscape for thousands of years.

 

Today I’m here to try and see them. Osprey are not  the easiest bird to watch in the wild, but the news is out that a pair has returned from their overwintering grounds in Senegal to nest again at Whinlatter Forest. And who could blame them? This is blessed country.

Rounding the snaking bends at the bottom of the lake I am soon deep into an endless density of pine and conifer. With the mountain mist filtering the  light through the trees, it has more than a touch of the enchanted forest about it. Indeed, Whinlatter is England’s only mountain forest;  its tree-cowled slopes rise up 800 metres above sea level giving visitors unrivalled sylvan views of the surrounding lakes and hills.

 

At its visitor centre I’m met by Nathan Fox, project manager for Whinlatter’s nesting osprey population. The fish-eating hawks are the major draw here and Nathan has been in charge since the scheme began 15 years ago: “I feel very privileged to have been here at the start,” he says. I was there, camped under the tree in a tent to see the ospreys first return – to see a moment happen for the first time in 150 years. Yes. That was a good day.”

 

Since then ospreys have grown into something of a superstar in the British ornithology world. Whinlatter itself has recorded over 1.5 million visitors through its gates specifically to watch them nesting. But ours wasn’t always an attitude of respect and adoration towards this bird. Back in the nineteenth-century, wealthy landowners took exception to its superior angling abilities, seeing ospreys as a threat to their sport fisheries and trout rivers. Overnight they became vermin with a bounty on their heads so that by 1840 these majestic creatures had become all but extinct in the UK. But by 1954, when ospreys eventually came back, attitudes had changed. Since the first breeding pair returned to Loch Garten in Scotland, the RSPB has run a round the clock operation to keep a watch over them and monitor their breeding, leading to an estimate of over 250 pairs nesting in the UK each year. And it’s  a testament to the work of Nathan and the team that Bassenthwaite is now one of the best places to see them fresh from their colossal globe-spanning migrations out of Africa in April. 

My visit coincides with the most exciting time of the year: hatching season. One chick has cracked its shell already and as I enter the visitor centre an excitable crowd is gathered around a live video feed hoping to catch sight of the next one entering the world. The footage from the nest is captivating, an avian Big Brother but with far better characters. The ospreys themselves are a commanding presence and I get an insight into why it is they so possess the human imagination. Each is an iconic thing to see, like wildness distilled. Large and powerful, its deep brown and white plumage resolves into a trademark swipe across the face, as though it’s wearing a Lone Ranger mask. Then there’s the piercing lemon eyes, the black curved beak and those razor sharp, needle-point talons that make the feat of plucking a trout out of the water at high speed look like the most natural thing in the world.

 

Today the nest cam is also a window into quite the domestic scene with female and male sharing the limelight. Watching the mother, named “KL”, feed her chick small shreds from a decapitated trout is a strangely tender scene. Her mate, unceremoniously titled “Unringed” because of his lack of a monitoring band, conducts poor attempts at tidying, injecting an unwitting touch of humour.

 

 

He’s doing a bad job of moving the sticks around – poking mother and chick – but his dangerous attempt at DIY doesn’t last long; KL quickly snaps him back into line. Cue much giggling from the gathered throng of twitchers.

 

In fact, the atmosphere around the monitor crackles like Christmas Eve. Visitor and volunteer alike are aware that they are witnessing a special time. This is conservation in action. And later when Nathan confides that he’s witnessed grown men cry at the sight of the bird it’s easy to believe him. From persecuted to protected, it’s truly heartening to see a project like this working so successfully, seizing the hearts and imaginations of a crowd that ranges from 7 to 70.

 

After a while, I strike out into Whinlatter to see the forest proper. Of the eight available, Nathan has recommended the “Seat How Summit Trail”, one that he advises is three hours at a leisurely pace, although he assures me I can do it in less. A quick cut through the excited children in the Go Ape area and I’m suddenly, blissfully alone in the woods. The trail runs up through glistening moss-lined wooded avenues that call to mind the elven forests of Lord Of The Rings. After half an hour, I push my way through to the top of an incline and stop to admire the windswept view over Whinlatter Pass, an old Roman road. Catching my breath, drinking in the cool air, the silence is broken suddenly by noises from further up the trail and I realise I must have wandered onto one of the mountain’s many bike tracks. Biking is the other big draw here and from my somewhat unauthorised preview of one of the courses, it looks like a sublime location. Darting out the way, I cut back through the trees and join the footpath, tracing my way up the edge of the forest towards Ullister Hill along a path perfumed by glistening spruce tips and sound-tracked by the high-pitched chatter of common crossbills - another big tick for birders. The top of the next hill is like the Caledonian Forest  - covered with scrub layer of heather, ling and ripening bilberries. I take a seat and am afforded magnificent views east towards Cockermouth and the old industrial heartland of the Derwent Estuary. A pause for a restorative slice of sticky ginger cake, bought at the visitor centre café, and I’m back on my feet, content in the knowledge it’s mostly downhill from here.

 

Passing through a wider clearing, a remnant of the forest’s timber-felling past, there is an unmistakable sound – cuck-oo, cuck-oo, cuck-oo. Consistently ranked among the best-loved British birds, the cuckoo has been in sad decline since the 1980s with over 65% species loss. Worse still, no one knows exactly why, although it doesn’t take a climate scientist to make an educated guess. I can’t remember the last time I heard one, which makes today’s encounter even more poignant. For a full ten minutes I’m rooted to the spot, binoculars out, trying to catch a glimpse. I can’t see him yet his calls taunt me from the coniferous cover. I walk a hundred metres or so and there he is again, this time right on top of me. I clearly see the dark bars across his breast just before he takes flight and vanishes over the horizon. Silence returns to the clearing and I start to make my own way down, before a sign offers a quick detour to the Seat How summit.

I wasn’t expecting this. Before me lies the best view I’ve seen in a long time – very possibly one of the best views in the UK. It is a vast, sweeping expanse too great for the mind to take in at once, a landscape spanning Bassenthwaite, Derwent Water and Keswick. For the second time in half an hour I’m forced to just sit and absorb it all, quiet calm spreading through me as I watch miniature cows in the fields, boats on the lakes and tiny dots of colour that are hikers in the far distance.

Feeling fully rested, I head down the path quietly, in the hope of seeing a red squirrel – the second most famous resident of this incredible forest. Half a mile on I think I see a ripple of red moving along a branch from the corner of my eye, but that’s it. They’re not coming out to pose for pictures today.

 

Having spent several hours immersing myself in the osprey’s natural habitat, I’m keen to get a live look at them in the air, so I jump in the car and  drive around Bassenthwaite Lake to the other side and park at Dodd Wood, site of the two main osprey viewing platforms. Another short climb brings its own fresh set of inspiring terrain to keep the journey interesting. The wood is cut through by a beck, whispering away, fringed with prehistoric-looking ferns. Birdsong tumbles from the trees.

 

Arriving at the lower viewing platform I’m greeted by  more friendly volunteers and one of them, Barbara, shows me another live feed of the nest, this time on an iPad. Still no more chicks to report but she helpfully guides me to a telescope and then talks me to the nest’s location: Look left, past the tree and watch out for the dense thicket.”

 

For a long time there’s nothing and  then, just as the thought of a long bath begins to seem irresistible, I see the male osprey slicing through the air, coming to land in the nest, back from another successful fishing trip. When I step back from the eyepiece, my heart is beating fast. Witnessing an osprey in flight as the sun comes down and there’s a hint of rain over the mountains is a special experience. You don’t forget such things in a hurry. Moments like this deserve marking properly.

 

The newly minted Lakes Distillery just down the road seems like a fitting place. Through its ornate, wrought-iron gates, I meet the smiling Liz Parkes, who is only too happy to guide me round the shiny mix of ornate copper stills and high-tech machinery housed in what was – until derelict recently – a Victorian model farm. They’re aiming high here now though after a multi-million pound renovation, hoping to make England’s best single malt with the daisy-fresh water from the River Derwent that flows along the back of the buildings. The first batch is safely barreled in bourbon and sherry casks and undergoing its three-year aging, so for now at least, their gin is the star of the show. Fresh and zesty, it has a citrus pinch and there is, of course, juniper on the nose, but there’s also something less recognisable and, as it turns out, even more exciting. Liz informs me that  the gin is made with Lakeland botanicals, including meadowsweet, bilberry and heather sourced nearby. Even in a little plastic taster cup, all the sights, smells and tastes of the forest rush back in an instant and I drink them in again.

 

I order a proper measure and lean back as the last rays of sun hit the outdoor tables in the old farm’s courtyard, savouring the sensation of warmth the day has brought. Saving something and giving it a new lease of life is certainly popular around these parts. And I’m very glad it is.

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