For generations, white-tailed eagles roamed the British countryside. That was until the last of the species was shot in 1918. But several projects have seen the bird reintroduced in the UK – with some encouraging results.  

WHITE-TAILED eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla) were once common across the British Isles.

With a 2.4-metre (8-ft) wingspan and nick-named ‘flying barn doors’, they clearly did not go unnoticed by our ancestors, who persecuted these majestic birds to extinction. Sadly, as history shows, the bigger the beast the easier it is to exterminate, and so it was for the white-tailed eagle. The species was put in peril by loss of habitat, but extinction was through persecution.

As for most native, top-end predators, Scotland was the bird’s final refuge, with the last white-tailed eagle shot there in 1918. But appropriately Scotland was the first country in the United Kingdom to welcome back the white-tailed eagle, with the first reintroduction on the Isle of Rum in 1975, and subsequent reintroductions at Wester Ross using birds sourced from Norway. The white-tailed eagle population in Scotland now stands at around 130 pairs. 

Isle of Wight welcomes new avian tourists

White-tailed eagles were once common along the south coast of England, from Cornwall to Kent, but disappeared long before the last white-tailed eagle was shot in Scotland.

Indeed the last record of a breeding pair in England was at Culver Cliffs on the Isle of Wight in 1780. There followed a long 239-year wait before the species was brought back to the Isle of Wight in 2019,  but not without resistance from some local farmers. Fish comprise the overwhelming component of the eagles’ diet, together with sea birds such as seagulls and small to medium-sized wild mammals. Carrion is eaten and there are claims, albeit not common, of white-tailed eagles taking live lambs in Scotland.

Forestry Journal: With an eight-foot wingspan the white-tailed eagle was popularly known as ‘flying barn doors’. (Picture copyright Lorne Gill, NatureScot).With an eight-foot wingspan the white-tailed eagle was popularly known as ‘flying barn doors’. (Picture copyright Lorne Gill, NatureScot).  

Be that as it may, the Isle of Wight reintroduction project, involving a number of organisations such as the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, Forestry England and Scottish Forestry, went ahead in 2019. Six juvenile white-tailed eagles from Scotland, each equipped with a solar-powered satellite transmitter for GPS tracking, made up the initial release of birds. 

Five of these remained close to their release sites, but within 10 days one young eagle, G3 22, astounded everybody by taking a trip, which ended in Essex after a convoluted flight path taking in Hampshire, West Sussex, Surrey and Central London. It’s anyone’s guess the last time Londoners saw a white-tailed eagle soaring in the sky above. Since then more white-tailed eagles have been released at sites on the Isle of Wight, including a batch of 12 birds in summer 2021, with more long-distance flights recorded.

On the morning of September 2020 an eagle designated G461 crossed the Solent and Southampton Water and journeyed into the South Downs. The young male bird spent the following five days exploring wooded areas in the Meon Valley of Hampshire before roosting in woodland just north of Alton (Hampshire) on October 5. The bird subsequently headed north and at 11.50 am was seen passing over Farnborough (Hampshire) on the border with Surrey. At 12.40 pm he was seen perched in a wood a mile north-west of the M25/M3 junction and later that afternoon flew over Coulsdon (Surrey) and ended the day roosting in a woodland 2.5 miles south of Oxted (Surrey), having flown over 50 miles in a single day. 

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Ironically, the journey had taken the young bird within seven miles of Selhurst Park (London Borough of Croydon) and home ground to Premier League Football Club Crystal Palace for which the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), another ‘sea eagle’ and closely related to white-tailed eagle, is a mascot. 

The ‘shore’ bird which likes trees

Despite relying heavily on marine wildlife (mainly fish) for food, this coast-hugging and sea-shore-loving bird has a surprisingly keen interest in trees. White-tailed eagle is also called ‘sea eagle’, although the name applies to any of the 10 species of eagle in the genus Haliaeetus. But according to the RSPB, white-tailed eagles, unlike golden eagles which they often live alongside, prefer to nest in trees rather than on cliffs. 

Evidence from Scotland shows nesting by white-tailed eagles to be almost entirely confined to conifers, including Scots pine, larch and Sitka spruce. To this end, Forest Research and Forestry Commission Scotland (now Forestry and Land Scotland and Scottish Forestry) produced an excellent publication in 2011 to help foresters assist in the creation and maintenance of favourable roosting and nesting sites for white-tailed eagles, and how to carry out tree and forest management without disturbing the birds. 

Excerpts from the publication show how seriously the industry takes the conservation of this species:  

“Roost sites are often in mature and well-thinned stands, but may also be in younger, unthinned plantations. Several trees may be used at the roost site. Several of the biggest trees in the picture were used by up to ten individuals and the ground was littered with feathers and droppings. A light thinning around the roost trees may improve their wind-firmness, which could encourage white-tailed eagles to continue using the roost site, and increase the likelihood of eagles nesting there. A heavy thinning may render a roost site unsuitable, if it exposes the roost trees to wind. A few of the roost trees could also be altered to facilitate access for nesting.

Forestry Journal: This shore-loving bird relies on trees for nesting sites. White-tailed eagle chick (‘Tiroran chick’) at nest within the Tiroran Community Forest on the Isle of Mull, Scotland. (Picture copyright Justin Grant, rspb-images.com).This shore-loving bird relies on trees for nesting sites. White-tailed eagle chick (‘Tiroran chick’) at nest within the Tiroran Community Forest on the Isle of Mull, Scotland. (Picture copyright Justin Grant, rspb-images.com).

“If a tree containing a habitually-used nest blows down as a direct result of a clear-felling operation, then this could be regarded as reckless behaviour. To avoid such a scenario, forest managers should discuss options with Forestry Commission Scotland and NatureScot staff as soon as a white-tailed eagle starts nesting on a coupe programmed for felling.” 

Dave Sexton, RSPB officer on the Isle of Mull in Scotland, told Forestry Journal how he works in the Tiroran Community Forest, and in close association with community owners SW Mull and Iona Development and contractors Tilhill Forestry, to keep the eagles safe, while allowing as much as possible of the forestry operations to continue as planned.

Dave described a nest with eagle chick (‘Tiroran chick’) in the forest and located in a Sitka spruce tree. All around was ‘wall-to-wall’ Sitka spruce, apart from a band of larch in front of the nest. Even though this larch was felled outside of the nesting season due to Phytophthora ramorum the eagles carried on using the nesting site in the following year. “In fact it is now easier for them to get in and out,” said Dave. 

Age-old persecution apparently resumed

So far so good, with 25 white-tailed eagles released on the Isle of Wight – until one of the birds was found dead in suspicious circumstances in Sussex in October 2021. This was followed by the discovery of another dead eagle, this time in Dorset in late January 2022, in circumstances suspicious enough to warrant the Dorset Police to ask anyone with information to come forward. According to an article in the Daily Mail, the carcasses of both dead white-tailed eagles were found on shooting estates in the respective southern English counties.

Dr Ruth Tingay, who co-directs the charity ‘Wild Justice’ together with Springwatch host Chris Packham, told the Daily Mail of “huge concern” for the safety of the remaining three eagles thought to have taken up residence in Dorset. 

She said: “Two of the reintroduced white-tailed eagles from the Isle of Wight project have been found dead in suspicious circumstances on game-shooting estates in southern England. And the fact they were discovered during multi-agency searches is a clear indication that criminality is suspected. 

“They might have been shot, or they might have been trapped and clubbed to death, or they might have been poisoned.” 

Same old hypocrisy 

In a recent article (‘Restoration of riparian wildlife and raptors – what’s the point?’, Forestry Journal February 2022) I questioned whether the considerable effort invested in the conservation of riparian environments and birds of prey was worthwhile when individuals and organisations can apparently destroy habitats and kill these protected species without sanction. 

In the case of the white-tailed eagle, conservationists are going to extraordinary lengths to reintroduce and reestablish this native eagle for which natural recolonisation would have been impossible.

However, it now appears that others with a different agenda may be committing crimes by killing these extremely valuable birds of prey at will. What may already be happening to white-tailed eagles reinforces my view that we appear to be fighting a losing battle against establishment forces and interests.

I was mulling over my conclusions when up popped a Dorset MP with some extreme views on the matter. His tweets and the following avalanche of criticisms of them were reported by the Dorset Echo and by many other outlets. Chris Loder, MP for West Dorset, said police should not be wasting resources probing a wildlife crime after an investigation was launched into the death of these two rare eagles, one being found in the county of Dorset. What sort of message is that? Pronouncements from irresponsible individuals with a public profile and platform can clearly influence those who would commit crimes against legally protected wildlife. 

Forestry Journal: Chris PackhamChris Packham

His tweets generated a raft of criticism which was led by a broadside from wildlife campaigner and TV presenter Chris Packham, who tweeted: “Not just undemocratic but sinister.” 

Writing on Twitter, Mr Loder said: “Dorset is not the place for eagles to be reintroduced. I’m not challenging government for more money for Dorset, so it goes on this.” 

Just to make the record absolutely clear, no white-tailed eagles have been reintroduced to Dorset. Those which are there now have migrated from the Isle of Wight.

Feeding activities of the eagles are closely monitored. Observations show the eagles have become adept at fishing in the Solent and other surrounding waters, although some birds have been feeding on carrion. The birds, which summered in Scotland and North Yorkshire, preyed mainly on moorland rabbits. 

Reports on the numbers of live lambs preyed upon by white-tailed eagles vary widely depending on whether you listen to conservationists, farmers or ‘outlying’ politicians prepared to say anything for a ‘newsflash’. However, surely it is not beyond the scope of a government claiming lofty conservation ideals to develop a compensation plan and package for farmers and crofters who may lose livestock in this way. Indeed, many European countries pay compensation to landowners and farmers for livestock losses from apex predators like lynxes.

I can’t see why Chris Loder is getting so steamed up about sheep and lambs in Dorset because the UK government appears to have that one covered for the foreseeable future.

Does he really think that sheep farmers in Dorset will be able to compete with Australian and New Zealand lamb imports once zero-quota, zero-tariff, meat imports kick in? 

With Dorset downland now free of sheep and lambs thanks to his government we can plaster the landscape with pine trees for white-tailed eagles to nest in. Indeed, there is a long history of planting pine trees in Dorset, including Corsican pine, radiata pine and maritime pine, and we all know how well Pinus performs in the county. Perhaps Chris Loder’s time would be better spent helping his livestock farming community?

‘Old English’ eagles

White-tailed eagles were once distributed throughout the British Isles. Evidence comes from a fascinating article by Derek W. Yalden (‘The older history of the White-tailed Eagle in Britain’), published in British Birds. The article lists the names of towns and villages which clearly originate from the ‘Old English’ (OE), ‘Middle English’(ME), ‘Old Norse’ (ON) and ‘Cornish’ (C) names for ‘eagles’. For instance ‘earn’ (OE) and ‘ern’, ‘erne’ and ‘earn’ (ME) all mean ‘eagle’. 

A classic place for me is Earley. Earley apparently gets its name from two Old English (Anglo-Saxon) words, ‘earn’ meaning ‘eagle’ and ‘leah’ meaning woodland clearing – ‘eagle clearing’. The name Earnley (Sussex) came about in the same way, while Ernstrey (Shropshire) was constructed from ‘earnes’ meaning eagle’s and ‘treow’ meaning tree – ‘eagle’s tree’. 

Forestry Journal: Plumage of the white-tailed eagle clearly shows how the bird got its name (Picture copyright Edward Makin, rspb-images.com)Plumage of the white-tailed eagle clearly shows how the bird got its name (Picture copyright Edward Makin, rspb-images.com)

Derek Yalden acknowledges that the Anglo-Saxon language did not always differentiate between Britain’s two native eagles (white-tailed eagle and golden eagle). However, the place names on his extensive list are frequently associated with lowland woodland and river valleys, thus strongly hinting at white-tailed eagle. In fact, looking at the spread and frequency of place names with a clear eagle connection, you could speculate the white-tailed eagle was essentially a species of the inland river valley but was forced out by persecution to the sea-shore before finally becoming extinct.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Ben Andrew, Dave Sexton, Tracey Miller and Alison Maclennan and all at RSPB, and Catriona Webster at NatureScot, for sourcing and supplying the pictures.