Loch Arkaig was the location for a failed UK osprey reintroduction nearly 90 years ago. As we switch on our osprey nest camera for the season it is a good time to remember two glorious eccentrics, in a story linking our Scottish pine forest with the millionaire playground of New York high society.
Captain C.W.R. Knight (1884-1957) was a First World War sniper who went on to make a living as an explorer, author, photographer, falconer and lecturer. He and his eagle Mr Ramshaw enjoyed considerable celebrity in their time. From a theatrical family he also picked up some acting work, most notably in the 1945 Powell and Pressburger classic I Know Where I’m Going in which he played Captain Barnstable, a character not a million miles from his own! His great niece is the actress Rosalind Knight who appeared in some early Carry On films, St Trinians, Only Fools and Horses, Gimme Gimme Gimme and more recently Sherlock.
In 1929 Captain Knight, known as 'Chas' to his many friends, obtained two pairs of ospreys from Gardiners Island, New York. Stopping on the way to show them off in London’s Trafalgar Square he then travelled to the Scottish highlands and released them on a small island on Loch Arkaig. He chose the release location because it had been the last nest site before ospreys disappeared from the UK around the time of the First World War.
Not a success
Knight’s 1929 release was not a success. These were birds from an American strain used to spending the winter in Brazil. We are much more sophisticated about these things today, and know that when attempting a species reintroduction it is important to seek the closest to native genetic stock available. It is unclear exactly what happened to the four imported ospreys, but they would have had difficulty migrating if they survived long enough to feel the urge. Might they have headed out into the Atlantic seeking Brazil come the end of their first Scottish summer? We will never know.
Captain Knight was a master publicist and produced postcard sets of his various exploits. Six cards were released to commemorate the osprey work. Thanks to Steve Crook who owns a set and gave us permission to reproduce them here. Some of the cards reveal another reason the Gardiners Island birds might not have thrived at Loch Arkaig. Ospreys are shown nesting on the ground. In the Scottish Highlands such nests could attract the attention of otters, badgers, pine martens and wildcats to name just a few.
Gardiners Island lies just to the east of Long Island. Lion Gardiner bought it from the native Montauk chief in 1639 for "one big black dog, one gun, some powder and shot, a gallon of rum, and three Dutch blankets." It has been in the same family since and is off-limits to all but invited guests. With no natural predators this six-mile strip of land is one of the few locations in the world where ospreys nest on the ground.
The collapse in the Gardiners population alerted people to the danger of DDT pesticide. DDT was sprayed copiously around Long Island to suppress mosquitos. This is The Hamptons where wealthy New Yorkers spend the weekend. Nobody wants a mosquito bite with their Martini or Manhattan! Unfortunately DDT also stops ospreys from forming a strong shell on their eggs. When Knight took his four birds for Scotland in 1929 there were probably 1000 or more ospreys on the island. By 1966 there were only 50 active nests producing just three or four chicks a year. The birds came within a year or two of complete wipe out.
Campaigned against DDT
British-born ornithologist Dennis Puleston (1905-2001) monitored the Gardiners osprey collapse and campaigned against DDT. Largely thanks to his efforts it was banned across the US in 1972. Dennis had been an adventurer in the South Seas and had a pet boa constrictor called Egbert. He sounds like he is cut from the same cloth as Chas Knight. If they ever met I am sure they would have got on famously, although perhaps Mr Ramshaw the eagle and Egbert the snake might not have warmed to each other!
In the end, it was ospreys from far more suitable Scandinavian stock which eventually recolonised Britain from the 1950s onwards. I am sure Captain 'Chas' Knight would be thrilled to know these birds are back at Loch Arkaig – with three successful nests in the vicinity last year. Even though his own reintroduction efforts came to nothing, his life’s work promoting the conservation of birds of prey in the public consciousness has played an honourable part in the story.
Stateside meanwhile, osprey numbers at Gardiners Island are healthier today but they never fully recovered. It is likely the gulls which became dominant in the ospreys’ absence are now limiting the comeback. The lesson here is that habitat health is key to keeping our wildlife thriving.
At Loch Arkaig Pine Forest which we bought in partnership with local group Arkaig Community Forest, we have a long-term plan to regenerate and revitalise the ancient pinewoods. This is home to a whole array of amazing wildlife. In the case of ospreys there is good evidence they prefer nesting in old-growth pines which tend to flatten out at the top and offer an excellent vantage point. Exactly the kind of woodland we are seeking to preserve and expand.