What future do Scotland's white-tailed eagles face?

White-tailed eagle

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Britain's biggest bird of prey was nearly knocked out of our skies for good almost a century ago.

The sight of the white-tailed eagle's impressive two-metre wingspan in our skies was eventually saved by a reintroduction scheme in Scotland.

But, even as its recovery is being hailed as a conservation success, the mighty bird may be under threat once again.

The population remains small, vulnerable and limited to just one area of the country. Will the eagles ever spread their giant wings beyond Scotland?

Island pride

Widespread throughout Great Britain and Ireland since the Dark Ages, it is estimated that up to 90% of the birds were lost by the time of the Industrial Revolution.

Destruction of habitat and human persecution drove the species to extinction in the early part of the 20th Century, when the last pair nested on Skye.

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White-tailed eagle

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The bird's reintroduction to Scotland, which began almost half a century ago with an attempt to put the species back on Fair Isle has, on the face of it, been a huge success.

A recent report by the RSPB, 'Wildlife at Work', estimated that 'eagle tourism' contributes up to £5 million to the economy of the island of Mull each year.

It also brings less tangible, but equally important, benefits.

These include a sense of collective success for the island's people, a pride in seeing the eagles not just in real life but on TV programmes such as Springwatch and, most importantly perhaps, the ecological benefits such a flagship species brings to the rest of the island's wildlife.

Nor is this success confined to Mull. Skye also welcomes a steady influx of visitors wanting to see the eagles and other iconic west of Scotland species such as golden eagle, hen harrier and otter.

While the Fair Isle birds eventually dispersed without forming a sustainable population, that first release taught the teams valuable lessons.

White-tailed eagle Sea eagles can live 20-25 years in the wild

From the mid-1970s, white-tailed eagles bred from Norwegian stock were released into more suitable habitat. Sites included the Isle of Rum in the Inner Hebrides, and in Wester Ross on the Scottish mainland.

Later, in the early 21st century, the scheme was extended to the east coast of Scotland, in Fife.

White-tailed eagles, like all large, long-lived birds of prey, breed slowly, and numbers took time to grow, during which time the project had to withstand some criticism.

Some local communities did not want the birds there at all. Conservationists persuaded islanders to give the eagles a chance and to accept that, in some cases, the potential harm the birds might cause was overstated.

There were objections from other conservationists however, who thought reintroduction schemes were somehow "not natural", or considered this particular scheme to be proceeding too slowly.

In the face of their critics, the birds not only survived, but gradually grew in numbers until they started to spread around the Western Isles.

Where next?

But all this effort may be at risk of failing: the white-tailed eagle could still disappear from our skies.

One reason is the relatively low numbers. Despite the project's undoubted success, the UK population of white-tailed eagles is still only about 60 pairs, almost 40 years after the Rum reintroduction began.

Tip to talon

White-tailed eagle
  • White-tailed or sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla)
  • Length: 80 cm
  • Wingspan: 2.2 m
  • Weight: (M) 4.3 kg (F) 5.5 kg
  • Diet: Fish, birds, mammals, eggs, carrion
  • Habitat: Seacoasts, rivers, large lakes

Although the birds are not subject to the same pressures as they were in the past, such as shooting and egg-collecting, there are still many other threats facing them.

Last month, wildfires swept the Highlands threatening nesting habitats of both the golden and white-tailed eagle.

Young, inexperienced eagles face all sorts of hazards from collision with power lines and vehicles to the continued use of poisoned bait by some land managers on the mainland which although illegal, is still widespread.

But perhaps the biggest threat to the continued survival and prosperity of white-tailed eagles in Britain is inaction.

In 2007, Natural England and the RSPB proposed a plan to release the eagles into East Anglia but resistance from local communities meant the plan did not go ahead.

Roy Dennis was warden of Fair Isle Bird Observatory when the very first birds were released and he told the BBC that an opportunity had been missed in Suffolk:

"The disappointing thing was that I think many people thought that as soon as we had twenty pairs of eagles breeding in the Hebrides the job was done. Whereas others of us felt the job is not done until we have them breeding back all the way from the Channel coast to Shetland," he said.

Could white-tailed eagles be put back into other great British wetlands? The question provokes a plethora of different reactions from those living on and managing the land.

Personally, I think my own home patch of the Somerset Levels, the site of the biggest wetland rewilding project currently underway in the UK, seems an ideal place to start.

I for one look forward to seeing this majestic bird soaring not just over the Isle of Mull, but also across Glastonbury Tor, within my lifetime.

The eagles can be seen in Hebrides: Islands on the Edge which continues of BBC One (Scotland), Monday 13 May at 2100 BST and is available on iPlayer.

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