Author Michael Blencowe
Circling high in the blue May skies above Lewes is one of the world’s deadliest predators. Peregrines are hunting above us.
Scanning the avian traffic their incredible vision locks on to an unsuspecting bird passing below and they instantly negotiate the most sophisticated aerial manoeuvre possible. They stop flying. With wings and feet tucked in tightly the peregrine drops from the sky at an unbelievable speed –hurtling earthwards at up to 200 mph – the fastest creature on our planet. Everything, even the eyelids and nostrils on this bird are built for speed. They’re like a bomb made out of muscle and feathers – and they will decimate any victim in their path.
A survey of the diet of urban peregrines in Exeter was published recently and showed that nothing that flies through their airspace is safe. Researchers snooped around the streets, gutters and ledges below a peregrine nest and, from analysing the falcon’s leftovers, identified 102 different bird species over 15 years. There were a lot of feral pigeons in there but also birds as small as goldcrests and as big as gulls – with a few bats in there for a bit of variety. Their diet included some real rarities; spotted crake, corncrake, Leach’s petrel, roseate tern. The peregrines seemed to be munching their way through the British bird list!
It’s a miracle that the peregrine itself is still on that list. During WW2 their preference for pigeons (including some which were carrying wartime messages) saw peregrines treated as if they were on the payroll of Mr Hitler himself. The Secretary of State for Air declared war on these falcons and issued the ‘Destruction of Peregrine Falcons Order’. The birds were slaughtered, their nests destroyed. After we gave Adolf the old heave-ho peregrines were left alone and numbers began to recover. But they were to face an even more deadly threat than the British Government; Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (or DDT to its friends).
Farmers worldwide had started spraying a variety of wonderful new chemical insecticides all over the countryside to improve yields. These invisible poisons hit the bird at the top of the food chain the hardest. In 1958 there were 650 pairs of peregrines in Britain. Six years later there were 68. Concerns over their decline sparked an investigation which led back to the source of the peregrine poisoning and the world’s eyes were opened to the reality of the damage that these chemicals could cause to our environment and to us. Rachel Carson wrote ‘Silent Spring’, the environmental movement was born and green was upgraded from a sort of yellowy-blue colour to an entire way of life.
Today, perched high above the organic food filled shelves and kitchens of Lewes the killer that kick-started the environmental uprising stands defiantly overlooking the town like a beaked Che Guevara. A feathered testament to revolution, strength and veggie burgers.
In May, I’ll be teaming up with the Sussex Peregrine Study group to celebrate our local peregrines with three events in Lewes. There is a talk, ‘The Peregrine in Sussex’, on Saturday 12th and two walks to watch peregrines on Sunday 13th. Full details can be found on our website.