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1 Sept 2021

The golden eagle – the true bird

Written by Rule Anderson, Ranger (Countryside and Islands, North)
Two adult golden eagles perch on a rocky ledge, beside a rather scrawny looking eagle chick in a nest.
Adult golden eagles with young | Image: Rule Anderson
The National Trust for Scotland cares for some of the finest North-West Highland landscapes – over 20,000 hectares, including Kintail, Torridon, Balmacara Estate, Inverewe and West Affric – and much of these are home to golden eagles.

Throughout human history, the golden eagle has been one of the most admired and recognised bird species, its image widely used in books and paintings. This continues today online, on TV and in films such as The Lord of the Rings. Golden eagles have been revered in many cultures around the world, from the ancient Greeks and Romans, to Native Americans and the nomadic peoples of northern Asia. Here in Scotland, golden eagles can be seen in the stone carvings of the Picts. In Gaelic the golden eagle is commonly called iolaire bhuidhe, but older Gaelic names celebrated its beauty, power and supposed supernatural abilities and included fireun, ‘the true bird’.

Despite this ancient reverence, golden eagles have suffered badly from persecution in Scotland in recent centuries, mainly due to conflict with red grouse shooting interests. They came close to following the fate of our other native eagle species, the white-tailed eagle, which was driven to local extinction in the early 20th century. Sadly, this persecution is not yet consigned to our past and there have been several high profile cases of illegal killing in recent years. Thankfully, Scotland’s population of golden eagles has generally continued to recover over the last few decades – over 500 pairs were recorded in the 2015 national survey – aided by protection in law.

A large golden eagle soars through the blue sky, with wispy clouds behind. Its wings are spread wide, revealing the feathery tips.
A golden eagle in flight | Image: Rule Anderson

The golden eagle has the most widespread distribution of any eagle species across the northern hemisphere but the Scottish Highlands are internationally renowned for their population. The beauty of the birds is complemented perfectly by the stunning Highland landscapes that make up their home. Their natural habitats include mountains and moorland, peatland and bogs, interspersed with patchy mosaics of regenerating native woodlands.

“I must admit that, for me, there is an aura about the golden eagle, perhaps enhanced by the remote and almost mystical Highland landscapes they inhabit and their shy and secretive nature.”
Rule Anderson
Ranger, National Trust for Scotland

Golden eagles are long-lived birds (they can live for over 30 years) and they occupy permanent home ranges together with their mate – usually they pair for life. It’s part of my job as a ranger to monitor the breeding success of those nesting in areas under the National Trust for Scotland’s care at Kintail and West Affric.

This year was my 15th year of following their annual spring breeding cycle. I became quite attached to the birds of one range in my early days, as their breeding success was far better than any of the others – they successfully fledged young every year, bar one, from 2007–14. Then in 2015 they failed on eggs during a miserably wet spring. It was the last I ever saw of the female and I presume she died; she had been replaced by a new young female by the following winter. It has been fascinating to watch this new bird though – she failed on eggs in her first breeding attempt but successfully fledged a single chick the following year and has pretty much continued with the rich productivity of her predecessor ever since … clearly a good mate (the old male) and a good home range are important too!

I should also acknowledge the huge role that volunteers with the Highland Raptor Study Group play in monitoring eagles across the region, and we work in close collaboration with them. John Smith sadly died last year, after over 40 years of surveying golden eagles at Kintail and nearby Glenelg as a volunteer for the group. John was a tremendous character, well known in the local community, and it was a privilege to benefit from his incredible knowledge and experience, not to mention unmatched enthusiasm for the species. I remember first meeting John when he popped into our office to say he was going out to check one of the Kintail pairs. I asked if I could go with him, and we went on to become good friends. I can say that John has been a big influence on my life and is much missed.

In addition, I can’t really write about golden eagles in the North-West Highlands for the National Trust for Scotland without mentioning the MacNallys at Torridon. Seamus has recently retired following 30 years as property manager there, where he continued the work of his uncle Lea in monitoring the golden eagles – for over 50 years between them.

Two golden eagles fly across a pale blue sky. They form almost mirror images of each other, with one appearing to fly upside down and reaching up with its talons.
Golden eagles | Image: Rule Anderson

I have the feeling that an eagle is watching me at all times whenever I walk through its domain – it sees all and knows all! – akin to the fireun of the old Gaels. The more I’ve watched them, the more I’ve seen that they aren’t completely infallible. But I have come to appreciate many of their super, naturally perfected, qualities: their supreme aerial abilities, their toughness in coping with Scotland’s extreme mountain weather (particularly the amount of rainfall), their devotion to their young and mate, and of course their famous sense of vision. I think Lea MacNally said it best and I will finish with a quote from him:

“Not the regal, imperious, wholly admirable bird of the over-sentimental, nor the merciless, rapacious, good-for-nothing killer of the die-hard grouse preserver or sheep farmer, but a bird, an immensely interesting one, which has a place and function in our countryside and a right to live in it.”
Lea MacNally
National Trust for Scotland Ranger at Torridon, 1969–91
A winter-scape at Kintail, looking along the high mountain ridge which is covered in thick, pristine snow. The peaks contrast against the bright blue sky.

I love this place, I leave no trace

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