Operation Osprey: A celebration of 60 Years

Jess Tomes, RSPB Loch Garten's Visitor Operation Manager, shares a bit about how the team and visitors celebrated a very important anniversary at the reserve recently: 60 Years of Operation Osprey.

Operation Osprey: A celebration of 60 Years

Sometimes, while we’re surviving the 21st century and doing battle with living life at a breakneck 21st century speed, it’s easy to forget just how different things were a relatively short while ago. Sixty years ago, in the year when the Mini was launched (the car, not the skirt!), Ian Fleming’s ‘Goldfinger’ was published and Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club opened in Soho, a quiet sensation was occurring in the heart of the Caledonian pineforest of Strathspey in the Cairngorms.  A pair of ospreys had hatched three chicks under the protective eyes of conservationists and locals and the now world-famous Loch Garten Osprey Centre (or Observation Post, as it was called then) opened its doors for the first time, enabling 14,000 people (in just five weeks!) to see the newly hatched osprey family. After many years of disappointment, it was hoped that the ospreys’ success would kick-start the re-establishment of the osprey as a breeding bird in the UK, after they were persecuted to extinction here in the early part of the twentieth century.  This year at Loch Garten we’ve been looking back to the beginnings of Operation Osprey, the project started by the RSPB and other interested parties in the mid-1950s, charged with bringing the osprey back to Britain as a breeding bird, and reflecting on the remarkable success story of the ospreys’ return.

Sixty years on and ospreys are now to be found throughout Britain, with an estimated 300 pairs nationwide and osprey viewing facilities exist not just in the Highlands, but elsewhere in Scotland, England and Wales. Millions of people have visited these projects over the last sixty years and even more follow the fortunes of our breeding ospreys via webcams. To say this has been a conservation success story capturing people’s hearts, is somewhat of an understatement.

Never ones to turn down the opportunity for a bit of dressing up, the Loch Garten Osprey Centre team were quick to suggest a retro, vintage-style weekend of celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of that momentous year. We hosted our 60th Birthday Bash over July 20/21 at the Osprey Centre and managed to create a lovely vintage feel to the occasion – we sent the Osprey Centre back in time and added bunting, games and cake for that festive feeling.

The team in their vintage gear. Credit: RSPB

Visitors enjoyed a down-sized recreation of the old Base Camp (where Operation Osprey staff and volunteers stayed in tents and ate in a caravan, on the late Bella MacDonald’s croft in Tulloch for around forty years). Our camp was complete with a vintage caravan and old canvas ridge-pole tent, lent by Aviemore Scout Troop (thank you!). The Highland Folk Museum also came to our aid and supplied us with some wonderful vintage artefacts to ensure there was an authentic feel to the event.

We also opened-up the Forward Hide to our visitors, which is usually ‘behind-the-scenes’ as it’s where the volunteers conduct their 24-hour nest-watch over the ospreys. The hide was ‘sent back in time’ with artefacts and documents from the 1950s and ‘60s and visitors enjoyed sharing the experience of the peace and quiet of this small hide.

In the forward hide Credit: Daniel Long

Our 60th Anniversary exhibition, on display in the Osprey Centre since May, has provided a trip down memory lane, with many old visitors and ex-volunteers returning to reminisce about the bygone days of Operation Osprey. With old photographs, original documents and a caravan theme, the exhibition pays homage to some of the heroes of the day and brings us up to date with some of the personalities involved in local and osprey conservation today. The exhibition was generously funded by MacDonald Hotels and Resorts and we thank them for it!

A visitor checks out the anniversary exhibition Credit: RSPB

Many families also came through the doors and there was plenty to keep the youngsters occupied, in addition to the usual nature activities on offer.

Bouncing 'osprey eggs' into the nest Credit: Daniel Long

Of course, a celebration isn’t a celebration without cake, and on both days a birthday cake was cut and shared out amongst our visitors. We are very grateful to Marina Dennis and Alastair McCook for joining us on Saturday to cut our cake – Marina is niece to Bella MacDonald, and continued to  house the Osprey Camp on her Tulloch croft until the late 1990s. Alastair was one of the original old-hands, doing night-shifts on the 24-hour nest protection during the 1950s and also taking many photos which have been so valuable as a documentation of those early days. Sunday saw ‘Mr Osprey’ himself, Roy Dennis, cutting our cake. Roy was George Waterston’s warden at Loch Garten from 1960-63 and it was here that he saw his first osprey, thus beginning a life-long passion for these birds. He still returns to ring our chicks (when we have them!)

Roy Dennis cuts the cake. Credit: Daniel Long

So, all in all a wonderful weekend of reminiscing and fun. Loch Garten is a powerful place, which once visited is never forgotten. The significant sense of history amidst the incredible Caledonian pineforest gets under your skin, and then before you know it, into your heart. We had many lovely comments all weekend about Operation Osprey and the 60th Anniversary, but perhaps it was all best summed up by Penny Weir, a local potter and volunteer from the first days of Operation Osprey in the 1950s: “I’ve returned to Operation Osprey after nearly 60 years! and have really felt surprisingly emotional about it. It’s made me realise how very important the whole association with the birds and the place has been – it’s hard to think it was 60 years ago. I live just down the road but have never in all those years, returned. The exhibition has been wonderfully laid out and so full of interest for folk who’ve never been here as well as us who live here. The stories could go on for ever, but what’s at the centre of all this is ospreys – there would be nothing without the birds.”

Thank you to those of you who have visited us this season, despite the disappointing year osprey-wise! Here’s hoping one of the birds who has been visiting the nest this year will return in 2020 and raise a family. We look forward to welcoming you, whether you’re a first-timer or a repeat visitor. The Osprey Centre closes for 2019 on Sunday September 1.