Crack out the champagne, hang out the bunting and perform your own celebration dance, because British raptor lovers have something to celebrate! Celebrate? Is that a typo? Well, you’d be forgiven for thinking so (especially when I’m writing) as all too often, when it comes to reporting on birds of prey in the UK, the news can be rather depressing and very much begins to sound like a very tedious and very tired, broken record. Seemingly endless stories of poisonings, trappings and shootings seem to plague the headlines of the raptor history books, with little sign of yielding. In this case however, I am more than delighted to say that the news is not all bad! No indeed, because recently, we have been informed of the success of the UK’s largest bird of prey. Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce, the white-tailed eagle?
My first experience with this magnificent species actually occurred this summer, during a visit to the Isle of Mull. Mull, which is an absolutely breath-taking Island, sometimes felt a little like some kind of bird of prey parallel universe! Growing up in upland Northumberland, birds of prey were far from a frequent sighting, they were there, but they were few and far between, elusive to say the least. But suddenly, in Mull, they were everywhere! Whether they were soaring over the cliff tops or sitting, surveying their kingdom by the side of a loch, the white-tailed eagle was one species which proved to be a very frequent sight indeed. However, as I am sure many of you are aware, this was not always the case, with the species being declared extinct in the UK in 1917.
At the beginning of the 1900s, the white-tailed eagle joined a long list of extinct British raptors, keeping company with other fantastic species, such as the Red Kite. However, reintroduction programs were spawned in order to re-establish the white-tailed eagle in Scotland. Between 1975 and 1985, two releases occurred on the Isle of Rum and between 1993 and 1998, reintroductions were carried out on Wester Ross. The latest stage occurred in Fife between 2007 and 2012, with there being approximately 106 pairs of the eagle in Scotland in 2015.
Sounds like a success already! 106 pairs in just under a century since their extinction? Not bad! Well quite, but as a red listed species (globally threatened, historical population decline) the white-tailed eagle is still vulnerable and requires meticulous monitoring and constant protection in order to successfully conserve them. Nevertheless, despite their vulnerability, a new report by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has predicted that the numbers of this species is likely to increase to around 221 pairs by the years 2025, with the potential for an even greater population by 2040! The report has been based around scientific modelling, proposing a number of potential scenarios that could predict the future size of the population. The figure of 221, is considered to be realistic for the species.
Although for us raptor lovers, this is fantastic news, it may not be welcomed with open arms by all. The main reason for the decline in the species at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century was due to persecution. Why were these birds targeted? A number of reasons, which encompassed threats to people’s livelihoods and livestock and the odd dose of propaganda, suggesting that your child would be the next tasty target on the menu of this tyrannical species! To say such suggestions are a little sensationalist, is a bit of an understatement. Now, nobody is denying that the white-tailed eagle is a very large bird, after all, it does have a wingspan that can reach 2.5 metres and stands at around 1 metre tall. Due to their size and their diet they are still considered by some as a significant threat to livestock and game. Typically, the diet of this species consists of fish, rabbits, hares, grouse and other medium sized mammals and birds, with there being some documented incidences of attacks on lambs.
Fortunately, this potential conflict has long been recognised and SNH are working with farmers and local stakeholders to understand the role the eagles may play in livestock losses and how such problems can be alleviated, allowing livestock farmers and raptors to co-exist. In fact, a scheme that began in 2015, is already investigating these issues and groups have been established in Argyll and Lochaber, Skye and Lochalsh and Wester Ross. Since their reintroduction, incidences of persecution of the white-tailed eagle have been very rare indeed in their current range across the west coast. However, as populations increase, the birds are now spreading into areas of Scotland where cases of raptor persecution are much higher. Where are these areas? Areas with red grouse shooting moorland. For conservationists, this is of course a cause for concern, with figures showing illegal raptor persecution to be much higher in such locations. However, the fate of the white-tailed eagles in these areas is yet to be seen.
The reintroduction and subsequent conservation of the white-tailed eagle since their extinction has not been easy. There have been and still are many obstacles and myths that have to be overcome to secure their future in the UK, but with this new report, the future is looking very bright. Yes these eagles are feared and disliked by some, but to others they are a great tourist attraction, improving local economies and adding immeasurably to the biodiversity and health of the ecosystems of the UK.
“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”- Conficus, Conficus: The Analects
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