EAGLE-EYED wardens thwarted an attempt to steal rare peregrine falcon eggs at Beeston Castle.
Intruders scaled a cliff-side where a pair of the rare birds of prey had made their nest – but luckily they were spotted by volunteers.
The eggs have now hatched and the brood of four chicks have learnt to fly away from danger.
The team of volunteers at Beeston Peregrine Watch has clocked up more than 1,700 hours watching the nest 24 hours a day in shifts since spring.
Poachers have targeted the castle in the past in a bid to steal eggs or even chicks, as they can fetch sky-high prices on the black market in countries such as Dubai.
Peregrine falcons are endangered, with numbers slowly beginning to recover after devastating losses during the 1950s and 1960s through pesticide use.
Caroline Jones, from Beeston Peregrine Watch, said: “After a few close calls with intruders and unsuccessful breeding seasons in recent years, to see these four healthy peregrine chicks in the blue skies above the castle is an absolute thrill for all of the volunteers and makes the hours of observation all worthwhile.
“We did have a small scare when one of the youngsters become stuck in the castle moat after fledging, but after a helping hand the whole family was reunited. When you’ve spent so many tense hours staring at one small spot on the cliff face, it will be fantastic to enjoy the birds in their true element, hundreds of feet in the air.”
The young peregrines will undergo weeks of ‘top gun’ training from their parents, as they develop the skills that will see them become the fastest animal on the planet, capable of dive speeds believed to be in excess of 200mph.
The adult peregrines will aid the youngsters’ hunting skills by capturing prey which they will then drop from a height, giving their offspring a chance to try out their own mid-air ambush tactics.
Charlotte Harris, chief executive of Cheshire Wildlife Trust, said: “This is fabulous news and many congratulations to the whole team who have kept a keen eye over the nest this year. Such a big, healthy family of peregrines is surely the best reward for all the hours of dedicated watching, which we have found out is sadly still necessary even today, to deter illegal activities.
“With around six out of ten wildlife species in decline, it’s positive stories like the return of the peregrine thanks to the support of local communities that can really help us achieve nature’s recovery.”
Visitors to the castle and the surrounding area are expected to be able to enjoy the sight of the peregrines hunting with their parents in the coming weeks.
It is illegal to intentionally kill or harm all UK birds of prey, including peregrines, golden eagles, hen harriers and red kites, as is destroying their eggs and nests.
Peregrines also have additional protection, meaning it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb them when nesting.