Provision of artificial nests, preparation of new agri-environment schemes and insulation of power-lines are some of the positive outcomes from a LIFE project tasked with improving the conservation status of Saker Falcons in eastern Europe.
Saker Falcons (Falco cherrug) are one of the largest birds in the falcon family. Noted by the IUCN Red List of endangered species as being under threat, and now officially classified as vulnerable, Saker Falcons previously enjoyed a wide distribution range stretching across the Palaearctic region from eastern Europe to western China. More recently though the bird has suffered a rapid population decline caused by factors such as habitat loss, agri-chemical impacts and poisoning. Trapping and capture for the falconry trade are also associated with the Saker Falcon’s Red List at-risk status.
In Eastern Europe the species favours open areas, steppes and semi-arid zones. The westernmost edge of its range occurs in the Carpathian basin where countries like Hungary and Slovakia have an obligation under the EU Birds Directive to protect Saker Falcons. The species is especially well known in Hungary because it plays an important part in mythical stories about the ‘Turul’ legend which is linked to the ancestors of Attila the Hun.
One of the threats recorded for Carpathian Saker Falcons relates to a reduction in nest sites. The species prefers not to build its own nests and tends instead to use old abandoned nests in farm woodlands. However, these woodlands are now disappearing, driven by demands on farmers for more competitive agricultural productivity. Changing land use characteristics in the Hungarian and Slovakian countryside are also leading to a loss of traditional falcon feeding grounds in livestock meadows and pastures. Furthermore, mortality dangers from new landscape features such as electricity cables continue to cause the species problems.
A Hungarian LIFE Nature Project (LIFE06NAT/H/000096) was therefore launched in 2006 to help find answers to these conservation concerns for the Saker Falcon. Over €2 million was awarded to the four year project which was led by the Bükk National Park Directorate and involved a partnership containing 10 other members. Their collective goal set out to improve the conservation status of this vulnerable species and their results have made some important headway in helping improve prospects for Saker Falcons in the Carpathian region.
LIFE funds were spent on a mix of preparatory and practical conservation actions. Planning work involved carrying out a comprehensive analysis of the birds’ habitats to determine where LIFE’s intervention could be targeted most effectively. This included tagging and tracking Saker Falcons to monitor and understand their behaviour and territorial patterns.
Findings from the species assessment helped inform the production of a management plan for the birds covering both Hungary and Slovakia. More of the LIFE project budget was then used to implement tangible project actions set out in the management plan, like providing improved nest networks through introducing 239 nesting platforms, 20 wicker artificial nests and 386 aluminium nest boxes. Around 600 trees were also planted in treeless lowlands to ensure future nest sites in Hungary. Some 4866 Sakers (3600 in Hungary and 1266 in Slovakia) were repatriated by LIFE staff from airfields (where they posed aviation risks) to pastures maintained by long-term grazing agreements. In addition, nearly 7500 power cable pylons were insulated to reduce electrocution threats to the falcons.
Work with 300 members of farming communities was carried out using the LIFE funds to demonstrate how agri-environment schemes could contribute to the restoration of Saker habitats in pilot pasture areas. Awareness raising activities were also undertaken with other stakeholders, notably local hunters and the general public.
Results from LIFE’s inputs are set out in the project’s Layman’s report, which highlights key achievements and confirms that more than 1200 juvenile Sakers fledged in the target areas during the project time. Further Saker Falcon data is also available on the project’s website.