Country diary: close encounters with our most exciting raptor | Environment

The huge dolerite cliff at the head of the valley glows in afternoon light. A pale green algal cast accentuates white streaks and fresh spatterings. This is peregrine and raven territory, the latter maintaining a respectful distance from the former. They’ve been present here for at least 50 years.

I first saw the falcons at their inaccessible eyrie under the great overhang in 1968. That was the time when peregrine and raven populations in Wales were recovering from dramatic postwar declines caused by organochlorine pesticides, used in dusting racing pigeons for fleas, treating crops, dipping sheep for parasites. The DDT, particularly, concentrated in the birds’ food chains, led to the thinning of eggshells and repeated brood failures.

1055 - Country diary: close encounters with our most exciting raptor | Environment



Derek Ratcliffe

The scrupulous research for the Nature Conservancy Council of Derek Ratcliffe (1929-2005), and his determined harrying of the agrochemical lobby, surely saved the peregrine – our most exciting raptor – from extinction in Britain. I’m grateful to him, though less so to a Tory government that dismembered the NCC in 1989, in order to check its spirited and effective opposition to environmentally damaging schemes countrywide.

I wish Derek could have seen the present rude health of this long-established nesting site. In the years I lived in Cwm Pennant I came here often, to watch these marvellous birds in a location where they’re relatively safe from nest-robbers. As a rock climber, pioneering routes up its steep faces, I frequently came close to them. I once spent an hour on a ledge with the tiercel, blue-grey and moustachioed, intently watching from six metres away, remarkably tolerant of my presence. I’d see him winging back, a pigeon in his talons, calling the falcon from her nest. Harsh chattering between the pair echoed from the rock walls. She’d fly beneath him upside down to catch the prey he dropped, before shearing back to feed the eyasses.

Once, standing in my garden down-valley, the head of a pigeon, severed in his 200mph stoop, fell at my feet. I looked up into a cloud of down drifting across the sun, from which the tiercel appeared, haloed, pigeon corpse grasped tight as he sped back to his cliff on scimitar wings.