Golden Eagles Soar In Scotland

Birds of prey and the UK. It has been a somewhat turbulent relationship at best, with constant news of the titanic clashes between raptors and their arch nemesis; the human. As most of us are aware, unfortunately there are those that belong to our species who take time out of their day to kill birds of prey whenever the opportunity presents itself, with most species of raptor being subjected to persecution at some time in their history. However, just weeks after the excellent news concerning the success of the white-tailed eagle in Scotland, here comes some more fabulous news; golden eagles are positively thriving in Scotland.

That’s right! More success for raptors as it has been announced that the population of British golden eagles has increased by 15% over the past 13 years. The national survey, which was funded by the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage, has found that there are now more than 500 breeding pairs of this magnificent bird in the UK, to be precise, there are 508. The surveys predecessor, which took place in 2003, found 442 breeding pairs, which was also heralded a success as it was an increase from the 1992 study that found 422 pairs. The news that breeding pairs are consistently  increasing is cause enough to celebrate, but there is something else to be cheerful about, as numbers of golden eagle have now passed the threshold for which their future is thought viable. Indeed, because 500 golden eagle pairs means that the bird now has ‘favourable conservation status’ in the UK, therefore, the population has the ability to survive long-term.

For raptor lovers everywhere in the UK, this is excellent news and nothing to be sneered at. However, although this news is definitely good news, there is one down side to the story. What could that possibly be? Scotland. What’s wrong with Scotland?! I hear you cry. The answer: absolutely nothing! No, it is not the land itself that is the problem, but more the fact that the entire population of this bird exists only in Scotland. England and Wales should also be able to boast populations of the golden eagle, but England’s last golden eagle went missing earlier this year. Although no body has been found, the failure of the bird to show in the Lake District this spring has meant that the bird is now presumed dead. Now, nobody is pointing the finger or whispering ‘foul play’, as it is quite possible that the bird died of natural causes, as he is around 20 years of age. Overall however, the lack of these birds in other areas of the UK is directly attributed to illegal persecution, with no pairs being able to establish successfully in their natural habitat.

In Scotland, it is thought that the golden eagle population has benefitted not only from reduced levels of illegal activity, but also the smaller amount of deer and sheep grazing on hills, which negatively effects the prey of the golden eagle; hares and grouse. In addition, the planting of forests has also added to prey availability and allowed the birds to spread across Scotland.

So! Golden eagles and white-tailed eagles are staging an immense comeback in Scotland, with golden eagle numbers almost reaching historical levels! There is no doubt that this is something to celebrate, but even in Scotland, the golden eagle is still limited to two thirds of its traditional territory range. In the west, the numbers are up, but in the east, it is all very quiet. In fact, only 30% of the known territories of the golden eagle are occupied by any birds. All quiet on the eastern front? Why? Is there a war on?! Well no, or at least, not your traditional kind. This war is between raptor and man, with the eastern lands of Scotland being dominated by intensively managed driven grouse shooting moorland, where several illegal raptor killings have taken place over the past few years. However, the numbers of killings has reduced and it is has been suggested that this is a result of the satellite tagging of the birds, which can help identify possible persecution cases. Nevertheless, this is by no means a fool proof method, with tags being deliberately destroyed in some cases. Over the past five years alone, eight satellite tags have been destroyed by persecutors.

Overall the news concerning the golden eagle is good news. Golden eagle populations have increased and this, coupled with the news that white-tailed eagles are also thriving, means that it has been a good few weeks for the giants of Scotland. Hopefully, if we can eradicate the evil of illegal persecution, they will soon be considered giants of England, Ireland and Wales also, making the golden eagle not just giants of Scotland, but giants of the UK.

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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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