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14 Jul 2021

The eagle with the sunlit eye

Written by Rob Dewar, Natural Heritage Adviser
A close-up view of a large eagle, swooping over water to land. Its wings are spread wide and its yellow talons are clutched beneath it.
White-tailed eagle | Image: Laurie Campbell
At a time when the world is losing biodiversity at an alarming rate, it is always a satisfying experience to report on a conservation success story. The return of the white-tailed eagle is truly a soaring tale.

The Gaelic language is beautifully descriptive: the poetic term for the white-tailed eagle is Iolaire sùil na grèine – ‘the bird with the sunlit eye’ – a wonderful phrase for such a magnificent raptor. Unlike the more secretive golden eagle, which favours nesting in mountainous cliff sites in remote glens, the sea eagle is very gregarious and often gathers in numbers at roost sites or where food is available. The white-tailed eagle is more likely to exist closer to humans in coastal environments and can be discovered more easily than the golden eagle; consequently, it has been vulnerable to persecution.

A large eagle soars through the air over the loch. A group of white houses can be seen on the shore, with woodland and hills in the background.
A white-tailed eagle swoops over the water near Inverewe

We begin our tale over 100 years ago, when the last pair of sea eagles bred on Skye in 1916. The final execution of a lone albino female eagle, shot on Shetland in 1918, saw the extinction of the white-tailed eagle in the British Isles. At this time, these eagles would have been seen as vermin and a threat to game. ‘When you see seven eagles at one time in the sky, it is time to thin them out a bit’ remarked Osgood Mackenzie, founder of Inverewe Garden and a skilled hunter as well as a keen observer of wildlife. This was the prevailing Victorian attitude. The colossal size and power of the bird may also have evoked some fear, and the concept of conservation had not really evolved.

The extinction of a species is a tragedy, but when it is a local extinction there is still hope through the reintroduction of animals from healthy populations elsewhere. The story of the sea eagle was a closed book for many years until a band of conservation-minded people, backed by the Nature Conservancy Council (which became SNH, now NatureScot), began a new chapter in bringing back the sea eagle to our shores. The first eagle chicks were brought from Norway in 1968 to Fair Isle, an island in the Trust’s care. This initial release of eagles provided a useful learning curve, and was followed by the release of 82 Norwegian eaglets between 1975 and 1985 on the Isle of Rum.

A rather scraggy looking eagle chick perches in its twiggy nest on a tree. Its small wings are spread wide either side of its body, and its beak is open as if calling.
A sea eagle chick in a nest on Shieldaig Island

Sea eagles take 5 years before they reach breeding age, and may take longer to become successful. There was a nervous wait for many years to see if the conservation efforts would prevail, and the eagles would once again establish in the Scottish Highlands. Breeding success is by no means guaranteed – the choice of some exposed nesting sites and precarious building can lead to the destruction of nests when the strong winds on the western seaboard cause havoc. Wet, cold springs are a challenge to all raptors’ breeding success, so it’s no coincidence that some of the best breeding years coincide with a spell of dry months when the chicks are being fed.

However, the reintroduction programme has gone from strength to strength. After the first successful breeding on the Isle of Rum in 1985, there has been a slow rise to over 130 breeding birds in the Highlands. The successful establishment of the sea eagle in the Highlands was followed by further expansion of the eagle into other parts of the UK, including North East Scotland – with the first successful breeding taking place there in 2013.

A view of a small wooded island in a loch. The sun is shining in the west, casting a magical orange glow over the water and trees.
Shieldaig Island by Torridon | Image: Laurie Campbell

The latest chapter in eagle conservation work has seen the translocation of eagles to the south coast of England, and this is where part of the story takes place on the island of Shieldaig in Wester Ross. This island is also cared for by the National Trust for Scotland. Cloaked by a canopy of Scots pine, with an understorey of heather and rambling honeysuckle, it provides a home for a wealth of wildlife including seabirds, seals and otters. As the reintroduced sea eagles expand their population, they search for new territory. Several years ago, we were ecstatic to discover the eagle had landed! A pair had arrived on Shieldaig Island and had begun building a nest, using an old heronry site. The first breeding attempts on the island were unsuccessful but eventually, with a relocation of the nest site and a more experienced breeding pair, the first chicks were successfully reared.

We have worked with the RSPB, and most importantly the local community at Shieldaig, to protect and observe the birds. We have also helped facilitate responsible and sustainable eco-tourism, through boat trips around the island. This contributes to the local economy but also involves the community in the welfare of these magnificent birds. This conservation partnership work led to us working with The Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation as part of the south of England reintroduction programme. Not all eagle chicks are successfully reared, particularly in a hard season, and removing one chick from a nest of two may guarantee the survival of both birds. This was the case with a female chick that was translocated from Shieldaig Island to the Isle of Wight in 2019. She was christened Solent by the conservation workers that released the bird.

A juvenile eagle sits on a tangle of branches in a tall pine tree.
Chick from Shieldaig Island

All good stories need a romance, and this one is no exception! Solent is now forming a bond with a male eagle, spending most days together in coastal locations around the Isle of Wight. They are seen fishing together on a regular basis, catching both marine and freshwater fish, along with other prey such as coots and black-backed gulls. They are also showing territorial behaviour by keeping other young eagles away from the island. This once-vulnerable chick from a far-away Scottish island has now made a territorial claim to the Isle of Wight! The next hopeful chapter in this story is – well, you can guess. We look forward to the clatter of young beaks, and the first sea eagle chicks on the south coast of England after an absence of over 200 years. With love, from Scotland.

I love this place, I leave no trace

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