You catch sight of a biggish bird high in the sky – it's a powerful flier and gliding silently. Pretty likely to be a bird of prey, or raptor. If you’re lucky enough to get a closer look, you’d be checking out a hooked beak and sharp claws, and a piercing gaze.
All this adds up to one skillful hunter and a magnificent flying machine. From red kites and kestrels to buzzards and barn owls, Sherborne is the perfect place to see these agile birds in action – to the extent that Chris Packham called it a ‘Festival on Raptors’ on Springwatch.
So why’s it so good? It’s all down to how the land is looked after by both rangers and farmers. Our many veteran trees, together with old barns and farm buildings, make great nesting sites. Rough grassland and woodland are home to voles, rabbits and squirrels, which in turn are prey for raptors. They’ll also eat frogs, toads and large insects such as mayflies, which are all plentiful along the water meadows, streams and rivers.
Ranger Anna Field simply loves raptors: ‘Spotting a kite high above or a barn owl skimming the long grass never fails to lift my spirits. We’re keeping a very close eye on all eight species of breeding raptors – and our visiting ospreys and hobbies.
‘And we’ve joined forces with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust to put up barn owl boxes and ring young owlets. One of our volunteers collects owl pellets, which can tell you a lot about what a bird’s eaten. Apparently they’re fascinating!'
Raptor highlights at Sherborne
Making a home
Raptors do well here because there is food – but the birds and their food need homes and that is down to the way the land is managed by our ranger team and tenant farmers. Trees are maintained across the estate which, together with quiet agricultural outbuildings, provide plenty of nesting sites for birds.
Areas of woodland and rough grassland provide homes for small mammals such as mice, rabbits and squirrels, which in turn become prey for the raptors. They’ll also eat frogs, toads and large insects such as mayflies, which are all plentiful in the waterways on the estate. This varied and abundant supply means that the estate can support a large number of predators.
Monitoring Sherborne’s raptor numbers helps us to know which types of birds are in the area, and what kind of work we need to do to help them thrive. Ranger Anna Field said: “We’ve been working with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust to install barn owl boxes and to ring the young owlets for a couple of years now.
“Ringing allows us to track survival rates and geographical dispersal of the birds, and we have plans to extend this form of tagging to other raptor species on the estate.
“We also collect pellets (droppings) which provide information about a bird’s diet. This allows us to track changes over time and through different seasons.”
By working with partners such as Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust and the British Trust for Ornithology, we can share our findings and contribute to best practice on how to support these bird populations.