Kestrel: On a wing and a prayer

Once Britain’s most common bird of prey, the kestrel has suffered an alarming decline in recent years. Charlie Elder finds out if the motorway falcon is on the verge of a crisis.


Kestrels article spread


Nigel Lewis of the Hawk and Owl Trust believes that a lack of suitable nest sites, such as holes in old trees, may be having an impact, by preventing kestrels from occupying good habitat.

Lewis is co-ordinating the Trust’s Kestrel Highways project, which began in 2008 and aims to install 240 nestboxes along 385km of road by spring 2011. Many of the boxes have already been occupied.

Everyone’s bird
The decline of a species as familiar as the kestrel is rightly a cause for concern, and not just for conservationists or those with a special interest in raptors.
The kestrel is everyone’s bird: a town and country dweller that has fired the imagination of poets, starred in the acclaimed film Kes and the animated series The Animals of Farthing Wood, been used in the branding of everything from lager to aircraft, inspired birdwatchers and novice naturalists, and turned innumerable heads on tedious motorway drives.
Here’s hoping that the future sees this falcon flying high once again.
Roadside verges may not be the most scenic locations, but they can support a wealth of wildlife.
Buffeted by the tailwinds of speeding vehicles, littered with rubbish, bombarded by the incessant roar of fuming engines… the verges beside our main roads and motorways are hardly picturesque.
Yet these scruffy ribbons of grassland provide an unlikely haven for many plants and animals, and act as ‘green corridors’ linking other habitats. Unsprayed, uncultivated, unfertilised and undisturbed (if you ignore passing traffic), our highway borders are effectively a vast network of linear meadows.
Species that thrive on verges include:
  • Bee orchid
    This eye-catching wildflower grows on nutrient-poor (often chalky) soil. It can appear in odd locations, such as roundabouts.
  • Glow-worm
    Not a worm but a beetle, which lives in rough grassland where its larvae feed on slugs and snails.
  • Marbled white butterfly
    It is not easy (or advisable) to identify butterflies from a passing car, but this chequered species stands out.
  • Harvest mouse
    The tall tussocky grass beside roads can suit our smallest rodent, which, surprisingly, is found even in urban areas.
  • Barn owl
    This widespread owl often hunts along rodent-rich verges. But its low-flying hunting style means it is a frequent victim of vehicle collisions.
  • Badger
    The steep, wooded banks of cuttings are ideal places for setts – badgers don’t seem to mind the noise.
Secure and relatively undisturbed, this famous address provides a safe nest site for several bird species. For the past six years, a pair of kestrels has nested in a disused drainpipe near an office window.
I first photographed the falcons here in 2004 and have been fortunate to watch them most years since. The Prime Minister’s garden must be the most unusual London location I have photographed in – and also the most restricted for security reasons, which can be something of a challenge.
Charlie Elder is a journalist, wildlife enthusiast and the author of While Flocks Last, about his quest to see Britain’s most endangered birds. To find out more, click here
To visit the BTO's website, click here
To visit the Hawk and Owl Trust's website, click here


We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here