Outdoors: The return of the buzzard

The return of the buzzard to haunts from which it has been absent for the last 150 years or so must rank among the most remarkable avian comebacks of recent times. Previously widespread in Scotland, intense persecution since the 1830s led the buzzard to become a rarity by the early 20th century, holding out only in the more remote parts of the country, chiefly in the West Highlands.

I still recall the thrill, as a child in the 1970s, of my first sight of a buzzard sitting on a fence post in Skye during my autumn half-term break; its large brown body and distinctive hooked beak underlining its grandeur as a top predator. It hardly seemed possible then that a few decades later the buzzard would become Scotland's most common bird of prey, with pairs now even breeding within the city boundaries of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Today, any car trip in the country will usually bring at least one sighting of a buzzard, with its penchant for prominent roadside perches resulting in it being known as "the telegraph pole eagle" in some parts of Scotland. At first glance it can appear a rather cumbersome bird, and will initially rise in a slow lumbering flight, but once properly airborne it is agile and graceful, soaring effortlessly on rounded wings, playing and working the air currents.

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Ornithologists maintain that this astonishing recovery in buzzard numbers is almost entirely due to a dramatic fall in human persecution in recent decades aided by legal protection afforded by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

High-profile legal cases of poisoning and trapping incidents have made the persecution of birds of prey a taboo activity.

The bounce-back has also been helped by the buzzard's ability to exploit a wide variety of habitats from mountain, moor and farmland to coastal areas and the edges of suburbia. It is an adaptable predator; it will kill mammals up to the size of a small rabbit, but beetles are also hunted and it will devour earthworms. Countryside verges are a good place to scavenge for roadkill animals or to hunt for mice and voles.

It would also be churlish not to recognise that buzzards will occasionally take pheasant chicks, hence their unpopularity with some estate managers.

Buzzards are at their most conspicuous in spring when courting pairs can provide magnificent aerobatic displays, rolling and tumbling together and sometimes even looping the loop, their mewing cries carrying far into the wind. By the end of July, the youngsters will be on the wing, the countryside air full of their plaintive, high-pitched calls, which sound a bit like a seagull.

Despite these more enlightened times, illegal persecution still remains a threat to further expansion of the buzzard population.

According to the RSPB, in 2008, 14 buzzards were found poisoned and 42 illegally-set poisoned baits were discovered in Scotland's countryside, with the potential to kill many more birds of prey. A further five buzzards were found shot. Such discoveries almost certainly represent only a fraction of actual cases, given that many of these incidents occur in remote locations, although the RSPB is keen to stress that most landowners and their employees in Scotland act within the law.

The fluctuating fortunes of our rabbit population may also provide localised checks on buzzard numbers. In many areas, young rabbits form an important source of prey, but outbreaks of myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease can cause rabbit populations to crash, which in turn shuts off an important food source for buzzards.

But the buzzard's sheer adaptability means that so far it has been able to shrug off such threats and it has now become such an integral part of the Scottish countryside scene that it looks set to thrive for many years to come.

• This article was first published in The Scotsman on 23 January, 2010