The white-tailed eagle, or sea eagle, was declared extinct in the UK in 1918. Thanks to a successful reintroduction programme, this magnificent bird is once again a feature of the Scottish skies.
With a wing span of up to 2.5 metres, and often referred to as a flying barn door, the white-tailed eagle is Britain’s largest bird of prey and the fourth largest eagle in the world. Although the common name of sea eagle implies that it lives on fish, the species actually eats a wide variety of prey and does not always live on the coast. Birds, carrion and mammals up to the size of a young deer are an important part of the diet, and inland populations may never fish at sea.
White-tailed eagles reach sexual maturity at 5-6 years of age. The adult birds build a nest, or eyrie, in the top of a mature tree. Up to three eggs are laid and the young eaglets hatch in May. They spend the first years of their life wandering widely, before finding a territory of their own in which to breed.
White-tailed eagles were once a common sight around Britain. However, in the last millennium they suffered massive declines, leading to their eventual extinction. Draining of land, felling of forests for agriculture, persecution, egg collection and bounty hunting all contributed to their demise. The last breeding pair was recorded on the Isle of Skye in 1916.
Initial attempts at reintroduction took place in 1959 and 1968, in Argyll and on Fair Isle. However, these were not successful. In 1975 a full-scale reintroduction began on Rum. 82 eaglets were translocated from Norway over a period of ten years, followed by another 58 between 1993 and 1998. The young eaglets were kept in enclosures for two months, before being released at four months old, once they were familiar with their surroundings and could fend for themselves.
The reintroduction has been a definite success. There are now over 80 breeding pairs on the West coast and the population is growing at 8-10% per year. Sadly, however, it has not been without problems. Newly established white-tailed eagles have suffered the same fate as many of our other birds of prey: persecution. Several birds have been found either poisoned or shot, and at the start of this year there was a formal call from farmers for numbers to be officially controlled. Despite claims from sheep farmers that sea eagles take healthy lambs, there is little evidence for this and indeed, Norwegian hill farmers have been living happily amongst sea eagles for thousands of years.
In 2007 the next phase of re-establishment began. The East Scotland Sea Eagle project aims to restore the species to east and central Scotland, on both coastline and lowland wetlands and lochs, with the long-term aim of connecting these with the west coast eagles to provide a Scotland-wide population. Between 2007 and 2012 a further 86 Norwegian eaglets were released and first breeding occurred in 2013.
One of our main project sites is at Kylerhea, on the east coast of the Isle of Skye, where white-tailed eagles are a common sight. We occasionally catch glimpses of birds throughout the rest of our Project Area. However, they are not yet breeding in the central Highlands and so sightings are infrequent. But Caledonian Forest is ideal white-tailed eagle habitat; Scots pines are excellent nesting trees and open patches of ground, lochs and forest wetlands make prime hunting territory. Through creating new areas of forest we will provide more future habitat for white-tailed eagles, which will aid the expansion of this magnificent bird into more of its former range. There will hopefully one day be several hundred breeding pairs of white-tailed eagles in Scotland, in a population that extends from coast to coast right through the Trees for Life Project Area.
Seeing an adult white-tailed eagle up close is an experience never to be forgotten. With its stern white head held proud, its deeply hooked beak and piercing yellow eye, it evokes feelings of true wildness, and of ancient ancestors soaring in the skies. It is intricately linked with old Caledonia and I hope that one day, Iolaire sùil na grèine - the eagle with the sunlit eye, will nest in the newly restored Caledonian Forest and will once again be master of the Highland skies.
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