There’s a war waging in the Scottish uplands. The battle lines have been drawn and each side is standing their ground. But for once this war is not between the English and the Scots. Sorry to disappoint, but there won’t be any long haired Australian men with their faces painted blue attempting a Scottish accent shouting ‘They will never take our FREEDOM!’ And as in any war, there are moments when battle rages and moments when each side retreats to regroup, reform and maybe even lick their wounds. So if I’m not talking about Mel and his Scottish army, what am I talking about? Humans are of course involved (aren’t we always?) and the opposition, once again comes in raptor form. And an impressive form at that.
The white-tailed eagle (or sea eagle); the fourth largest eagle in the world and the largest in Scotland with a wingspan of 2m, was once widespread throughout Britain. However, in 1918 the species became extinct, with losses due to hunting, egg collecting and poisoning. Over the years, there have been several attempts to reintroduce this magnificent bird, and success was very much a case of third time lucky, with the species finally gaining some kind of foothold in 1975. Since then the birds have bred and thrived and several more reintroductions have taken place, with 85 birds being released in between 2007 and 2012. And in 2013, sea eagles began to breed in eastern Scotland.
So what’s the problem? Doesn’t sound like a war to me, you say? Well, recently, things have been all quiet on the western (and now eastern) front, but the problems are still there. To put it simply, these are BIG birds and as usual, the natural world is not behaving as we would like it to. This species typically eats rabbits, hare, grouse, fish, small birds and other medium sized mammals. But wait. Other medium sized mammals? One word: lambs. Unfortunately for everyone, lambs fall under this category. To many, the white-tailed eagle, master of the skies, is a huge threat to lambing in the uplands.
Not too long ago, there was a story in the news that showed a photograph of a white-tailed eagle carrying what appeared to be a lamb in its talons. And of course, this sparked havoc. I read so many stories surrounding this, many with perfectly balanced arguments reflecting both sides, but some seemed to get a little carried away and even imply that it was lambs today and our children tomorrow!
But let’s take a deep breath and get back to the facts. Has the white-tailed eagle has been known to take lambs? Yes. And I understand the feelings of farmers who are afraid of this, after all, this is their livelihood and they have a right to fight to protect it. However, since their reintroduction, the eagles have been monitored and have been breeding and living in Scotland for some time now, and though there have been cases of lamb attacks, the eagles have yet to desecrate an entire flock. Many studies have even been executed to monitor this type of behaviour, with lambs being fitted with tracking devices. One particular study has shown that no lambs have been taken, but their was a retaliation against this finding, with some arguing that the devices fitted to lambs had scared the eagles away. Make of that what you will, I’m saying nothing. The general consensus from the conservation community is that eagles will take lambs, but these are likely to be weak and sick animals that would most likely die anyway, a theory that I happened to agree with.
Already a plan to hunt the eagle in order to control it has been rejected after a juvenile white-tailed eagle ‘attacked’ a Reverend. Suddenly, we are plagued with dreams and headlines of babies being carried off into the night by these sinister and evil birds! On closer inspection however, it was found that the Reverend himself had behaved threateningly toward the bird when he worried that the bird would try to take one of his geese.
But why do we need white-tailed eagles? It’s just a bird. We managed fine before without it! Some may believe that argument, but the white-tailed eagle has some argument for his claim to this land, with there being evidence for the presence of this species dating all the way back to the bronze age. I think we could definitely allow him to call himself a native, couldn’t we?
So, once again we find ourselves in a little bit of a predicament. We want our native species to thrive, but our farming industries want to thrive too. We want this species to behave exactly how we expect and to live in total harmony with all those around it. Well, we may have to accept that this is a little too much to ask. We can never predict how nature will behave and we should not want to. The best way to address this argument once and for all is to work with stakeholders. There needs to be a relationship between farmers and conservationists so that this magnificent bird can live in our lands without the constant threat of persecution and extinction. The white-tailed eagle is a magnificent and valuable species, which has an intrinsic place within the ecosystems of the UK and it has to be accepted and allowed to thrive. We need our farming industries yes, but we need also need healthy and thriving ecosystems. A phrase springs to mind:
‘You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.’
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