POLICE are investigating after a hot air balloon buzzed an osprey nest, causing young birds to flee.
Virgin have apologised for the blunder in which the giant balloon came within a few metres of the legally protected site near Forfar, Angus.
Pictures show the four young birds fleeing for their lives as the balloon, which was attempting to land, approached their tree. They had still not returned half an hour later and it remains unclear whether they have gone back.
An expert said the ospreys would likely have died had the incident happened earlier in the month because they would have jumped from their nest without being able to fly.
Disturbing Ospreys is illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, as there are less than 250 breeding pairs of the birds living in the UK. Offenders can be fined up to £5,000 and given six months’ jail.
Mike Fenton, who witnessed the incident at Balgavies Loch yesterday evening (Wed) and took pictures, said that in his opinion he had “never seen anything so reckless”.
Fenton, 52, a joiner from Letham, near Forfar, said: “It was planned. I watched [the balloon] going down the loch, lower and lower, cameras came out for people to take photos. The juveniles took off in a panic. They had not returned half an hour later.
“He couldn’t have got any closer to the nest.”
Mr Fenton claimed: “I’ve never seen it happen before, I’ve seen the balloon in the area. The nest is well publicised so the pilot cannot claim ignorance.”
Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations at RSPB Scotland, confirmed that landing so close to an Osprey nest is illegal, as the birds are protected by law.
He said: “We became aware of this incident late last night. The Osprey is listed on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, they are strictly protected from disturbance.
“Whilst it would be inappropriate to comment without knowing the specific details, I would urge witnesses to pass details to the Police Wildlife Crime Officer to investigate.”
Rab Potter, Reserves Manager at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, confirmed that police were investigating the incident.
He said: “Human disturbance is a real threat to the breeding and long term conservation of ospreys. If this had happened earlier in the season, when the chicks are highly dependent on their parents, there could have been serious consequences.”
“We have sent photographs of this incident to Police Scotland, who are making enquiries.”
An osprey expert, who asked not to be named, said: “If they were a couple of weeks younger and were unable to fly they would have jumped out of the nest and may well have died.”
A spokeswoman for Virgin Balloon Flights said: “We are truly sorry to hear that one of our balloons in Scotland last night appears to have caused distress to nesting Ospreys in the area.
“The exact locations of Osprey nests are not made public by wildlife conservation trusts in order to protect the birds and their eggs from any disturbance from the public.
“Because of this, our pilot had no idea the nest at Balgavies Loch was there and it was an unfortunate coincidence that the wind took our balloon within about 50ft of its location as our pilot was looking for a place to land.
“Hot air balloons travel with the wind and can’t be ‘steered’ in the traditional sense. However, had we known this area was home to a protected species then our pilot would have marked it on his maps as such and may even have moved the flight to an alternative launch site to avoid the wind taking him over it.”
Social media users reacted furiously when details of the incident were posted online.
One Facebook user wrote: “After watching the ospreys there for years now this just disgusts me to my core. I hope they are all going to get what the deserve. Thank goodness you have pictures to prove it all.”
Another simply said: “Shocking, no wonder the poor creatures were all terrified.”