The peregrines of St George's church
The first peregrine egg of 2018 hatched on 30 April and we are celebrating these stunning birds and what they mean to our University and city.
St George’s church was closed in 1981 and stood unused for a number of years until the University acquired it and in 1994 converted the stunning building into a lecture theatre and student accommodation.
The church is more than just a pretty building; it is currently home to peregrine falcons that successfully nested for the first time in the city in 2012. Their numbers are set to grow even more as the birds laid four eggs in this year and the first hatched on April 30 to the delight of dedicated viewers who watch the birds on webcam daily.
Peregrines are members of the falcon family, and can be seen on all continents except Antarctica. There are said to be 17 subspecies of the peregrine across the world, and a 2002 BTO survey found 1,437 pairs in the UK and the Isle of Man. These birds usually lay three to four eggs per clutch.
Peregrines are a Schedule 1 species, meaning that they enjoy special protections and are included under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is a criminal offence to disturb a peregrine when it is building a nest or with its young, and to disturb the fledglings still dependent on the adult bird.
The urban peregrines have become a regular feature in Sheffield’s skyscape, after the Sheffield Peregrines breeding project was kick-started by the Sheffield Bird Study Group, backed by our University. Nesting platforms were specially erected for the birds, and the university installed panoramic webcams over the church lecture theatre to keep an eye on the peregrines in their nest and prevent tampering.
Professor David Wood, from the School of Languages and Cultures, is Chair of the Sheffield Bird Study Group and has kept an eye on the birds since they first nested. He writes a blog on the falcons and their progress and a website featuring a live webcam that streams the birds around the world. The webcam has seen visitor numbers touching millions, and the blog has had over half a million visitors from all over the world.
The successful project has come as a huge breath of relief to conservationists, as the species was all but extinct in the Peak District in the first half of the twentieth century after being persecuted by game-keeping interests. The Bird Study Group has confirmed that over the last six years, 24 eggs were laid and 17 fledglings successfully hatched. Coloured tags are put on the legs of the fledglings to track their movements and identify them.
Despite human presence usually keeping them away from large cities, peregrines prefer to nest on precipices and cliffs, which can also be found in tall buildings like St. George’s church. Urban platforms like these lessen the (very low) risk of natural predators like foxes and pine martens, but the study group reported that, although the biggest threat to peregrines is human game-keeping interests, the pair of adult birds at the church have been aggressive towards crows and lesser black-backed gulls which could potentially predate peregrine eggs.
The Sheffield Bird Study Group was founded in 1972 to encourage and bring together birdwatchers in and around Sheffield. They aim to carry out fieldwork and recording in 12 set areas of 10 km squares that encompasses Sheffield, Chesterfield, Rotherham, Bolsover and the highest tops of the Peak District National Park.
Off the back of the success the project has seen so far, the Sheffield Bird Study Group is seeking donations to help extend the peregrines project by carrying out further research with colleagues in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, installing better cameras, investigating wildlife crimes that endanger birds of prey, and sharing knowledge about peregrines with the general public. They have so far received just shy of £2,000 but have a way to go to hit their £5,000 target.