White-tailed eagle project celebrates 100th breeding pair milestone

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The white-tailed eagle reintroduced to Scotland programme has reached major milestone of 100 breeding pairs, as revealed by Iolo Williams on evening’s edition of BBC Springwatch on May 28.

The milestone is a huge one for the re-introduction programme as it has been 40 years since the first young white-tailed eagles from Norway were released on Rum in 1975 and 30 years since the first wild chick fledged on Mull in 1985.

The reintroduction programme run by RSPB Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), formerly the Natural Conservancy Council, released 82 young eagles over 10 years on Rum. It marked the return of white-tailed eagles, also called sea eagles, to Scotland after an absence of nearly 60 years.

More young eagles were released under the programme in Wester Ross between 1993 and 1998. Further releases took place in Fife from 2007 to 2012, through a partnership with Forestry Commission Scotland, including in the National Forest Estate.

White-tailed eagles became extinct in the UK due to widespread persecution. They bred in England and the Isle of Man, and across Scotland and Ireland, but by 1900, only a handful of eyries remained, all in Scotland.

The last known nesting attempt was on Skye in 1916 and in 1918 the last British white-tailed eagle was shot in Shetland.

The white-tailed eagles on Hoy have been seen in the area every spring and summer since 2013 and are both thought to be young birds between four and five years old. This was their first known nesting attempt and although they were unsuccessful in raising chicks this year, the pair have gained vital experience for future nesting attempts.

However, as shown on Springwatch, this historic eyrie is an important step for expansion of the ranges of white-tailed eagles in Scotland and of great cultural significance to Orkney.

The importance of eagles can be seen at the Neolithic ‘Tomb of the Eagles’ on South Ronaldsay which contained bones of up to 100 people and 14 white-tailed eagles. A beautiful carving of a white-tailed eagle on a Pictish stone found at the Knowe of Burrian can be seen at the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall.

Stuart Housden, Director of RSPB Scotland, said: ‘The 100th breeding pair marks a huge milestone for the re-introduction of white-tailed eagles, and to reach it in this important anniversary year for the programme makes it even more special.

‘The success of bringing white-tailed eagles back to Scotland over the last 40 years owes a great deal to the partners involved, as well as the support of Police Scotland, landowners, farmers, local community groups and organisations, and to Norway who gifted the young eagles.

‘It’s fantastic to see how these magnificent birds have captured the public’s imagination and that the sight of a white-tailed eagle soaring in the Scottish sky is no longer a thing of the past. We’re delighted to celebrate the 100th breeding pair with BBC Springwatch.’

Susan Davies, SNH’s chief executive, said: ‘What a great conservation achievement – everyone in Scotland should be proud of this! Thanks to the many land managers and communities for all their hard work. Now these spectacular birds are back, bringing new tourism opportunities to fragile areas.

‘Given their geographical spread, there’s growing chances of seeing these magnificent birds in your local area. It’s particularly wonderful that the birds have spread so far that we have the 100th pair nesting in Orkney, now restored to an area where sea eagles reigned so many years ago. This is one of nature’s brilliant success stories.’

Kenny Kortland, Species Ecologist with Forestry Commission Scotland, said: ‘This is a great success story on so many fronts and it wouldn’t have been possible without the co-operation of so many land manager organisations.

‘We are pleased that the National Forest Estate is the home to some of these magnificent birds. Through joint wildlife viewing opportunities we have enabled the public to see white-tailed eagles and this has very positive benefits for tourism and local economies. It’s also a great demonstration of the benefits of working to resolve management conflicts.’

Known as ‘flying barn doors’, thanks to their eight-foot wingspan, white-tailed eagles are the largest birds of prey in the UK. They form faithful, life-long pair bonds and display a spectacular talon-grappling aerial courtship display during the breeding season.