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The Flying Barn Door

March 15, 2019

Relentless persecution pushed the spectacular White-tailed Sea Eagle into extinction in Britain & Ireland by the early 1900s. Cumbria provided the last known breeding refuge on mainland England, although the small Scottish population held on until 1918, when the last bird was shot in Shetland. Looking at the broader picture, populations thrived in Norway given the absence of such human pressures, and today, the Norwegian population remains healthy and buoyant, representing a third of the total world population and a foundation stock that has been use to repopulate Britain & Ireland. 

 

Far-sighted conservationists always dreamed of re-establishing a breeding population of these magnificent birds of prey in Scotland.  The first reintroduction attempts, in Argyll in 1958, then on Fair Isle in 1968, didn’t produce the anticipated results and ended in disappointment. White-tailed Sea Eagles don’t breed until they are 5 or 6 years old, they form monogamous, lifelong pairings, rearing just one or two chicks each year and don’t travel far from where they were raised, so any success was going to be fraught by ‘natural’ circumstances.

 

Undaunted by earlier failures, another reintroduction attempt was made on the Isle of Rhum in 1975 and following an anxious period, it resulted in the first ever successful breeding in 1985. This was repeated by another reintroduction in Wester Ross between 1993 – 1998. 

 

Following the Scottish reintroduction, a reintroduction programme was established in Ireland between 2007 - 2011 when 100 young eagles were taken from Norwegian stock, and released in the Killamery National Park, Co. Kerry. Although a pair nested in 2012, the first successful chick fledged the following year.

 

The sedentary characteristics of White-tailed Sea Eagles meant any expansion from the Western Isles would be very slow, so it was obvious another reintroduction was necessary to strengthen the Scottish population. To this end a further 85 young Norwegian birds were introduced to the east coast of Scotland between 2007 – 2012, hopefully aiding their spread to re-establish territories across the country sooner. In 2013, after an absence of almost 200 years, young fledged successfully from a pair in east Scotland. Following this, in 2015 a pair of White-tailed Sea Eagles nested on Hoy in the Orkneys for the first time in 150 years and produced their first young in 2018. 

 

White-tailed Sea Eagle reintroductions have been, overall, extremely successful in Britain & Ireland and this may be attributed to their broad range of prey items and wide choice of habitats making them an extremely versatile species.

 

Scotland is now thought to be home for more than 130 breeding pairs with eagle-tourism generating £5 million for the local economy on the Isle of Mull and a further £2.4 million for the Isle of Skye.

 

I will never forget my first sight of a wild-flying White-tailed Sea Eagle at Brill, Buckinghamshire in 1984. It was truly a magical moment and a rare occurrence in southern England. Such spectacular sights have not been witnessed along the south coast of England since 1780, but that is about to change. Plans are fast gaining momentum to reintroduce White-tailed Sea Eagles back to the Isle of White, more than 230 years after they were last present there.

To witness these magnificent birds of prey, the largest in Britain with a wing-span of 2.5 metres (8ft), is a privilege and only then can you begin to appreciate why they are often referred to as the ‘flying barn door’!  Just imagine the enormous pleasure of seeing a White-tailed Sea Eagle soaring the uplift air currents above the Needles, wow, that’s the stuff dreams are made of!

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