In Latin, Aquila chrysaetos. To you and I, the golden eagle. A magnificent bird that was once distributed throughout Europe, but is now considered a rare site in the UK. By the 18th century, one of our largest raptors, second only to the white-tailed eagle, began to decline dramatically in the UK. Such declines came as a result of a combination of factors, including illegal persecution by sheep farmers which was then exacerbated in the 19th century, by gamekeepers. By the time England and Wales had reached 1850, the year of the arrival of the first hippopotamus in the UK since prehistoric times, our golden eagle populations became a thing of the past. Ireland soon followed this trend and by 1912, the uplands of Ireland, Wales and England were without one of their iconic species. However, this tenacious and hardy bird did manage to cling to survival in the more remote areas of Scotland. But since then, things have improved, with the last survey undertaken to monitor golden eagle numbers., showing 442 breeding pairs. In Ireland, the reintroduction program has seen the release of 53 eagles in Glenveagh National Park.
However, recently, our Irish branch of golden eagles have been struggling to survive. In fact, the Golden Eagle Program is in such a bad way that the situation has been described as ‘urgent’ and if not addressed promptly, the project could be at risk of failure. Though this has not come as a complete shock, with some publications claiming that ecologists have been concerned for the success of the eagles for some time.
But what is the problem that they face? Shootings? Poisonings? Trappings? Actually, for once, this is not what is threatening the species, in fact, it is something basic to their very survival. Food availability. The Irish Wildlife Trust (IWT) recognises this and has claimed that the Donegal landscape is not providing the birds with the amount of food that they require.
There are only four pairs in the Donegal area, but the situation is so poor that no chicks survived this year, and only one survived 2014. The recent habits of the eagles in the area reflects the severity of the situation, with individuals being observed catching crows and badger cubs in order to survive. Hares and grouse would be considered ‘normal’ food sources for the eagles and this is what those in Scotland seem to favour, but such prey species are somewhat scarce in Donegal.
It is believed that the current problems are a consequence of the consistent declines in the amount of healthy upland habitats in Ireland. Unfortunately, such declines are a direct result of uncontrolled and increased burning regimes, turf extraction and livestock overgrazing. The IWT are fighting the possibility of once again, the extinction of the species in Ireland. The loss of golden eagles would be a major blow to the area, both in terms of biodiversity and tourism potential.
Regrettably, this revelation is a reflection of the lack of management plans in place at Glenveagh National Park and its surrounding SPAs. In addition, conservation plans focusing solely on the eagles leave much to be desired and are contributing to their plight. In response to this crisis, the IWT is calling for the introduction of farming systems that will echo the results of the Burren farming system. Famed for its positive impacts on the environment, the Burren farming system sees farmers being rewarded for practices that benefit biodiversity and contribute to the health of the environment. The IWT hopes that a similar approach in Donegal will not only improve golden eagle numbers and breeding success but also revitalise the uplands and the species that rely on them.
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