Sea eagles return: a forty year success story
RSPB Scotland’s Paul Walton and Richard Evans reflect on the successful reintroduction programme that brought sea eagles back to Scotland after an absence of nearly 60 years.
The sight of a sea eagle provokes delight and excitement. Yet, this sight – so iconic in Scotland – was absent for much of the 20th century, until a conservation effort brought the species back to our country.
Also known as white-tailed eagles, sea eagles were once widespread across Britain and Ireland. A steady decline from mediaeval times is evident, but the Victorian era brought intense persecution against birds of prey and other predators seen as competing with sporting estates for game and fish. The remaining number of sea eagles plummeted and in 1916 the last known surviving one, an albino female, was shot at North Roe in Shetland.
This loss of these eagles was huge not only for Scotland’s ecology, but also culturally. Archaeological and historical evidence indicates that sea eagles were incredibly significant to Scottish people. In Orkney the Tomb of the Eagles, a Neolithic burial tomb at Isbister, South Ronaldsay famously contains their bones, while a Pictish symbol stones depict beautifully carved birds, unequivocably recognisable as sea eagles.
As the conservation movement developed through the 20th century, reversing the loss of this these eagles from our native wildlife heritage became seen as a key imperative. Worldwide, sea eagle populations were struggling, adding urgency to bring them back to Scotland.
Three factors were crucial to the beginning of a reintroduction programme here. Robust UK legislation protecting wild bird species, including birds of prey - long advocated by the RSPB - entered the statutes, along with the confirmation that it was deliberate killing by people that had led to the loss of sea eagles here. These factors, combined with nearby Norway having a healthy population, spurred on conservationists to push for the return of sea eagles to Scotland.
The reintroduction programme became a reality in 1975 run by the Nature Conservancy Council, now Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) beginning on the island of Rum. Young birds were brought over from Norway, in partnership with Norwegian conservationists and authorities, and released into Scotland.
Yet, this was only the start of the story.
Sea eagles are long lived birds that don’t start to breed until they are at least four or five years old and have a naturally slow breeding rate. This meant that the new population in Scotland could only ever increase relatively slowly. It was 10 years before the first sea eagle chick successfully fledged on Mull in 1985, thanks in large part to wardening work by RSPB Scotland.
During the first ten years of the programme 82 young eagles were released on Rum. As the eagles began moving around the Scottish western seaboard RSPB Scotland had responsibility for finding, monitoring and protecting their newly occupied territories.
The population increase remained slow and by the early 1990s the number of sea eagles was still low. As a result SNH released a further 58 young eagles from Norway in Wester Ross. More recently further releases took place in east Scotland between 2007 and 2013. The first successful breeding here took place in 2013.
One of the young sea eagles released in east Scotland in 2007
Since the late 1990s, the rate of increase of the new Scottish population of sea eagles has been as high as anywhere recorded – testifying to how well suited Scotland’s environment is for these majestic birds - and how much they were a missed part of our native fauna.
Last year was a cause for much celebration for the reintroduction programme – as well as being 40 years since it began and 30 years since the first chick fledged the nest, 2015 saw the Scottish sea eagle population reach 100 pairs, a highly significant milestone. The 100th pair nested on Hoy, the first pair to do so in Orkney for more than 150 years. The same pair has returned again this year.
Looking forward there is now no immediate need for further reintroductions to sustain the Scottish population, and sea eagle numbers can be expected to continue increasing steadily in future towards a natural population level reflecting environmental conditions.
RSPB Scotland will continue to work with our partners to monitor sea eagles but the progress that has been made to date is incredibly significant. It signals that sea eagles are firmly back as a fascinating and treasured national wildlife species for everyone in Scotland, and all who visit here. This has been one of the most successful species conservation programmes in European history – and it has been made possible by the sustained support and backing given to RSPB Scotland and our conservation partners over many years.
The return of our sea eagles is shining demonstration that, with the right partnerships, political will, backing and determination, conservation efforts can deliver spectacular results. Now these magnificent birds again soar through Scottish skies.
Sea eagles across Scotland
Skye’s sea eagles have had an interesting year so far reports Alison MacLennan:
It’s been a roller coaster of a winter and spring for the white-tailed eagles on Skye. Frequent storms and high winds gave way to April showers and cold northerly blasts, but this did not deter the birds from getting on with egg-laying. However, 28th April took us all by surprise, when wet heavy snow fell continuously for nine hours – the snowiest and one of the coldest days on the island since winter 2014/15. Not surprisingly, a few of the breeding attempts didn’t survive this spell, but the stronger, committed, hardy parents soldiered on to face the next extreme weather challenge. Who would have believed that within 11 days of the snow we would have our hottest May day on record and that Skye would be the warmest place in the country and some say even warmer than Spain on that occasion? That was how it was on 9th May, when adult white-tails were observed panting in the shade to cool off from the un-seasonally hot temperatures, with Skye baking in 26oC!
Enjoy a date with nature on Skye with the Kylerhea sea eagles – find out more.
Dave Sexton gives us an update Mull’s sea eagles:
An exciting development on Mull this year has been a new trial partnership with two community owned forests which have nesting sea eagles. The Mull Eagle Watch project which comprises RSPB Scotland, Mull & Iona Community Trust, Police Scotland, SNH and Forestry Commission Scotland has now joined forces with the NW Mull Community Woodland Co Ltd and SW Mull & Iona Development to show both visitors and residents breeding sea eagles at the nest. With two rangers employed, the two hides at West Ardhu near Dervaig and in the Tiroran Community Forest are proving to be very popular this year and both nests have now hatched. By working closely with the community owners, managers and local contractors, RSPB Scotland has helped to ensure that harvesting and haulage can continue whilst also allowing the eagles to nest successfully. The project will run until the autumn at which point the income from the trips will be split equally between the two forest groups to spend on a range of projects in the local Mull community.
Why not see the Mull sea eagles for yourself? Details on how to visit are here.
Congratulations RSPB. This successful reintroduction is a very great achievement by a very professional organisation.