Sometimes known by its alternative descriptive title above, the goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) is a top diurnal avian predator making a comeback in UK forests and woodlands. Once persecuted to the brink of extinction, could it be the forester’s ally? 

LATIN scholars will of course recognise that ‘Accipiter’ is ‘hawk’, from ‘accipere’ meaning ‘to grasp’, and ‘gentili’ meaning ‘noble’ or ‘gentle’ because in the Middle Ages only the nobility were permitted to fly goshawks for falconry. 

But why is the goshawk so called in English? The hawk handle is obvious, but no-one seems quite sure what the ‘gos’ bit derives from. According to many sources it originates from the Old English ‘goosehawk’, but another suggestion might be from ‘ghost’ as this sizeable bird weaves silently through the trees at speeds of up to 40 mph. 


Forestry Journal: Goshawks are agile fliers and extremely effective predators – potentially to the benefit of foresters. Goshawks are agile fliers and extremely effective predators – potentially to the benefit of foresters. (Image: Getty)

Present in the forest all year round, the goshawk is an extremely agile flier, instinctively opening and folding its wings at just the right moment as it weaves or slaloms through the standing timber.

The advent of wildlife camera traps has meant that these can be set up overlooking nests off season to monitor future breeding success, discourage egg collectors and glean an idea of what the adults are hunting and bringing in for the growing young. Pairs are nest faithful – often using the same site year on year.

What this predator hunts will of course depend on what is available, as well as personal choice. A high-speed killer that effortlessly weaves through its woodland home and adjacent open areas, the goshawk can take a wide variety of prey. Common food includes other birds, such as wood pigeons, corvids (members of the crow family) and game bird poults, including grouse. Squirrels, rabbits and other smaller mammals are also regular victims.

Fresh studies in Gloucestershire reported in the RFS Quarterly Journal of Forestry revealed that one of the staple food items there was the grey squirrel – along with other assorted members of the fur and feather community on the menu.

So the goshawk is a useful natural predator of non-native grey squirrels that inflict multi-million-pound losses on broadleaf timber crops and forestry budgets annually.


The goshawk is protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and classified as ‘green’ under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4: the Red List for Birds (2021).

For foresters, that does imply that these birds should not be disturbed during the nesting season from about February to June. The law reads that during those months under Schedule 1 of the Act one must refrain “from intentional or reckless disturbance at or near an active nest”. 

Despite enjoying legal protection, persecution still happens. 

Forestry Journal: A goshawk nest spotted high up in the branches of a tall tree. A goshawk nest spotted high up in the branches of a tall tree. (Image: Getty)

A classic case last year was in the Kings Forest in the Brecklands on the Norfolk/Suffolk border when five shot juvenile goshawks were found dumped in a car park, clearly suggesting they were meant to be found. That incident generated an outcry. The RSPB and Wild Justice each offered a £5,000 reward to discover the perpetrator and some weeks later police arrested and charged a local man.

The numbers and range of this resident daylight flying raptor are expanding. It is territorial, so young are forced out to seek woodlands new.

They are best in tall mature woodlands and forests, which are easier to fly through, although the aerobatic skills of this sizeable bird have to be seen to be believed when pursuing prey. 


Back from the edge of extinction, the goshawk is the ultimate woodland predator. Its wings and vision are tailor-made for weaving through trees and hunting almost anything it is larger than.

This powerful yet elusive bird of prey was persecuted to extinction or close to it in the UK in the late 19th century by gamekeepers, but escapees and deliberately released falconry birds launched a population recovery from the late 1960s. 

Forestry Journal: In 2023, Forestry England installed a ‘nest cam’ to allow people to follow the fortunes of a pair of goshawks in the New Forest.In 2023, Forestry England installed a ‘nest cam’ to allow people to follow the fortunes of a pair of goshawks in the New Forest. (Image: Getty)

Always popular in captivity with falconers, deliberate and accidental reintroductions by them have seen the population slowly recover, with an estimated 500 or so by 2017 and just over 1,000 pairs now according to the British Trust for Ornithology. However, both habitat loss and persecution remain a threat.


The Northern goshawk is a widespread species that inhabits many of the temperate parts of the northern hemisphere and enjoys a circumpolar distribution in Eurasia.

Numbers of this agile hunter – which is almost as large as a buzzard – may just be underestimated as it nests in the tops of tall conifers, is elusive, a fast flyer amongst trees and protected. 


The goshawk lives in pairs scattered across the UK, with the greatest numbers in Wales and southern Scotland, but strongholds too in England in the New Forest, the Dean and Thetford.

Nesting in forests and large woodlands, they are most easily seen in late winter and spring, when pairs perform spectacular aerial displays above their woodland territories.


Grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) form part of the diet of goshawks in their native Eastern North America. And the losses this alien rodent inflict in the UK to broadleaf timber crops are measured in millions of pounds. But native British red squirrels are on its hit list too. 

As numbers build up, young goshawks should disperse away from their birth places to colonise new treed areas away from their current stronghold if left to their own devices.

Preferred nest sites are in tall, mature conifers in open stands. Retaining such stands and practices such as continuous-cover forestry may favour these native key predators. 

Leaving this apex predator in peace – and perhaps sparing suitable nesting sites – could be a wise investment in forestry spreadsheets if these legally protected birds assist in controlling the numbers of alien grey squirrels free of charge.