The Saker falcon (Falco cherrug) is a globally threatened species that is listed in Annex I of the Birds Directive. Hungary and Slovakia are home to some 47% of the European population (c. 450 pairs). Thanks to EU financial support, this population has stabilised and is increasing; while the European and global population is still decreasing. Roaming behaviour of juvenile falcons has been mapped to reveal a very wide catchment, ranging from Spain to Kazakhstan. Monitoring indicates that the young birds spend more time in Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia where there are more, less densely-populated, suitable habitats. These habitats can be potential expansion areas for the core population, if enough suitable nesting places are available and if threats are addressed.
The Falco cherrug B-H-R-S project aimed to stabilise and further strengthen the core European populations of the Saker falcon by implementing best practices for conserving the species in Bulgaria and Romania. The earlier LIFE Nature project Falco cherrug-Hu/SK (LIFE06 NAT/H/000096) provided important new information about the risks, survival rate, migration and roaming patterns of juveniles. This knowledge and experience was transferred from the Hungarian and Slovak partners of that project to the Bulgarian and Romanian partners. In addition, the project sought to eliminate threats in the falcon's core area to further strengthen its conservation status.
The Falco cherrug B-H-R-S project directly benefitted the Birds Directive Annex I Saker falcon (Falco cherrug) population in Central Europe through a series of concrete conservation actions. The project significantly increased nesting and feeding opportunities, with the installation of 150 artificial nests. Five colonies of the prey species ground squirrel (Spermophillus citellus) were successful establishment and monitoring (e.g. using ear tags that could be identified in bird nests). A total of 8 916 electric pylons were effectively made bird-safe, with the project team establishing a good cooperative partnership with electric companies in all project countries; effectively stimulating the companies to conduct their own conservation activities. In addition, special cages were built in which to keep injured birds, which could also be used to breed birds: two cages in the MILVUS rehabilitation centre in Romania and two cages at Bratislava Zoo in Slovakia.
The project developed guidelines for subsidies and management of habitats of the Saker falcon and its prey species the ground squirrel. These were used to improve agri-environmental schemes in Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia, which should positively impact on the quality of falcon habitats in the future. The guideline about the effect of wind farms on the Saker falcon can be used by authorities to evaluate any future wind farm plans and avoid their development in key falcon habitats. The results of the prey survey provided a well-based argument for discussion between nature conservationists and hunters and pigeon keepers about the extent of the impact of Saker falcon on species of economic interest. The survey confirmed that the falcon's prey comprises a high proportion of small mammals like ground squirrels (while pigeons make only 25-50% and hares 4-6% of the prey), while several factors influence yearly fluctuation of the prey composition of the Saker falcon (e.g. weather, habitat management).
The project initiated the development of three new types of bird-safe cross-arms, i.e. heads of electric pylons that carry wires under voltage. These innovative designs were used in Hungary, and were introduced to the Slovak electric company’s representatives. These cross-arms represent a more durable alternative to insulation of old pylon heads, at a cost comparable to the previously-used plastic insulation covers.
The project’s use of satellite transmitters on falcons allowed 3D visualisation of their flight trajectories and revealed that they vertically avoid (fly over) areas with wind turbines, which means that they cannot use them as prey-source habitats. Falcons were fitted with PTT satellite transmitters before fledging (19 birds in the four project countries). The migration data obtained from the satellite transmitters helped in understanding the dynamics of the Saker falcon population and contributed to the Global Action Plan for Saker falcon adopted under the Convention on Migratory Species in 2014. The methods for assessing subsidies and management practices in Saker falcon and the ground squirrel habitats, developed in Hungary, were successfully applied to Romania and Bulgaria, together with further conservation, monitoring and dissemination project actions (e.g. nest box installation, ground squirrel repatriation, insulation of electric pylons, satellite and video monitoring, questionnaires, dissemination materials). A significant demonstration effect was achieved by analysis of the wind farm impact on the Saker falcon population and the developed guideline to avoid conflicts.
The project’s broad dissemination campaign improved public awareness about the Saker falcon and related topics. This campaign included a website, information boards at project sites, a 25-minute documentary film, leaflets, and the layman’s report.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Conservation Plan (see "Read more" section).