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White-tailed eagles: Bringing back an icon

This sad old male, widowed many years before, would regularly return to his ancient nest to search for his mate and to “gaze out over the wide horizon and wait”. He would wait and search in vain.

Anyone alive today and lucky enough to have made it past their 100th birthday was around at a time when there were still a few of the ‘original’ sea eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla) soaring above the far north of Scotland.

This year marks the centenary since the last documented sea eagle in the UK was shot and killed in Shetland. It might seem odd to ‘celebrate’ an extinction anniversary, but a lot has happened since then that we should celebrate.

While it is highly likely there were a few other birds remaining after that last recorded death, this particular bird is the one we remember. Although often described as ‘albino’ and ‘female’, it’s more likely the bird was leucistic, a pigment abnormality which causes paler than usual colouration, and male. Protected by the Shetland Island community for some 30 years, he was a striking bird and has gone down in sea eagle history and folklore as the end of the line for this species in Britain.

© John Sanderson
© John Sanderson

Without being overly anthropomorphic, you can’t help feeling for that last, lost lonesome bird. He will not have called to, bred or flown with another sea eagle for years. For a species as sociable as the sea eagle, that must have been a hard fate to endure. There’s a line often quoted in the history of sea eagles (no-one is quite sure where it originated) which sums up the hopelessness of that bird and of that era (and it gets me every time). This sad old male, widowed many years before, would regularly return to his ancient nest to search for his mate and to “gaze out over the wide horizon and wait”. He would wait and search in vain.

Of course, in that period, pretty much anything with a hooked beak, sharp claws, beady eyes and teeth was being exterminated. The Victorians didn’t like anything that might prey on their game-birds or livestock and so they set about getting rid of everything they could. Red kites, ospreys, goshawks and sea eagles suffered massive declines and all ultimately became extinct as breeding species in Scotland. The rarer something got the more it became a target for egg collectors and taxidermists who wanted them as specimens. This was to be the final nail in their coffin: sea eagles were doomed.

© Amy Lewis
© Amy Lewis

Golden eagles just about managed to cling on to an existence in the remotest Scottish glens. Golden eagles are more elusive and fearful of man, their nests are harder to access often on sheer cliffs and crags and they generally make themselves scarce. Sea eagles by comparison would have been relatively easy to persecute. They are more inquisitive and bolder around people and will flap about calling above an active nest bringing them well within range of guns. And they would also feed more readily on carrion so a dead sheep or deer laced with poison could attract in and kill many birds over a few weeks. The golden eagles thankfully survived - just - but their bigger neighbours succumbed. Sea eagles were gone and being largely non-migratory there wasn’t much chance of them ever coming back. At least not without a little help from their friends.

Luckily sea eagles did indeed have some visionary friends and gradually the dream of putting right a wrong and bringing them back to Scotland as part of a reintroduction project began to take hold. There were two small scale, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to do just that. In Argyll in 1959 and on Fair Isle in 1968 where a few birds collected in Norway (the nearest and biggest population to here) were released into the wild. For a few short years sea eagles were briefly back on our shores but there were too few to build into a viable population. Some valuable lessons were learned and they paved the way for a more organised and ambitious translocation project over three phases starting in 1975 and ending in 2012. This time they would succeed.

While Scottish Natural Heritage have led the project from the outset with Phase 1 on their National Nature Reserve of the Isle of Rum, a private landowner in Wester Ross provided the release site for Phase 2 and Forestry Commission Scotland did the same for Phase 3. Farmers, local communities, birders and tourists have all been vital to helping make the project work. The RSPB has helped monitor the birds throughout and it’s been an amazing and successful multi-agency and Government approach from start to finish. Except we haven’t finished yet!

© Paul Mills
© Paul Mills

There are still only about 120 pairs of sea eagles and they’re all in Scotland and nearly all on the west coast. When you consider this was once a widespread, not uncommon, species nesting from the south coast of England to the far north tip of Shetland, we still have a long way to go to ensure sea eagles are ultimately restored to all their former haunts which could still support them. Sea eagles shouldn’t just be confined to the rugged coasts and cliffs of NW Scotland. We only associate them with here because this was their final refuge 100 years ago. They would be equally at home hunting and nesting around inland freshwater lakes and rivers, estuaries, lowland deciduous woodland, reed beds and marshes all across the British Isles. A similar project is also underway in Ireland. Maybe one day England and Wales will follow Scotland’s pioneering lead? Where conflicts with sheep farmers arise, we work hard to find swift, practical, reasonable and crucially, non-lethal ways to solve the problem. Living with big predators can be challenging at times for some but the will is now there to find workable solutions.

There will be bumps in the road ahead, issues to resolve and probably some setbacks. But times are changing. Nothing worth having ever happens without a great deal of hard work and determination. And, in my opinion, sea eagles are certainly worth having back in our landscape. With the ongoing spirit, vision and energy of those working to restore these once lost treasures of our natural world, this time, sea eagles really are back for good.

Dave Sexton is the RSPB's Mull Officer. He started his career with them protecting little terns in N Wales before going on to watch over the first sea eagle chick on Mull in 1985. He became RSPB's Head of Reserves in Scotland helping to acquire some if their most iconic nature reserves but in 2003 he decided to follow his heart and return to Mull and the white-tailed eagles. He lives in Salen with his family and Labrador.

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By Dave Sexton