White-tailed eagles in Southern England

By Mike Short, GWCT predator ecologist

White-tailed sea eagles were once widespread in Southern England, but relentless persecution led to their extinction 240 years ago. The last known breeding attempt in this region was in 1780, when a pair nested on the steep chalk cliffs of Culver Down on the Isle of Wight. The South Coast White-tailed Eagle Reintroduction project is a partnership between the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation and Forestry England, with additional support from local conservation agencies and stakeholder groups. The project, which started in 2019, will see up to 60 young eagles fitted with GPS-trackers and released on the Island, over a five-year period under licence from Natural England.

Two GPS-tagged white-tailed eagles released during the project,-whose-identities-are-G4-61-and-G2-74-Ainsley-Bennett
Two GPS-tagged white-tailed eagles released during the project,
whose identities are G4 61 and G2 74 (Photo credit: Ainsley Bennett)

Chicks are collected from nests at around 10 weeks old under licence from Scottish Natural Heritage, before being translocated to special aviaries on the Isle of Wight and released later that summer. The project hopes to establish a breeding population of 6-8 pairs of white-tailed eagles from this initial translocated population. In time, this will link existing breeding populations in Scotland, Ireland, France and the Netherlands.

A condition of the licence that permits the eagle releases was for the Roy Dennis Foundation and Forestry England to establish a project steering group. This group meets regularly to receive updates on progress, and to guide the project team by sharing information and advice, and to discuss and address any potential conflicts.

Heralding from the Isle of Wight as I do, I was pleased to accept an invitation to represent the GWCT on the steering group. The reintroduction of ‘lost’ species into Britain – particularly predators – is a topical and contentious issue. Some wildlife managers are wary of reintroductions or even vehemently against them; others see these projects as having multi-faceted benefits. But whatever your personal views, ‘rewilding’ projects are now happening everywhere. The GWCT’s representation on the steering group means game management interests have a voice.

The steering group met via Zoom recently, and I was one of 28 participants, which included representatives from the National Farmers Union, the National Sheep Association, Hampshire Ornithological Society, New Forest Verderers and Isle of Wight County Council, to name a few. We come from a broad church. Another objective of the steering group is to help the project communicate information about white-tailed eagles more generally, not only to stakeholder groups but people from all walks of life.

This summer, despite considerable logistical challenges attributed to the coronavirus epidemic, seven more eagles were released, joining four surviving birds from last year’s release. Unfortunately, one of this year’s eagles died after a collision with a powerline, but such accidents happen, particularly when it comes to birds sometimes described as ‘flying barn doors.’

Young white-tailed eagles are renowned wanderers, and GPS-tags have recorded some fascinating long-distance movements. I was particularly interested to hear about the travels of male G3 93, released in July 2019. After spending the summer and autumn months mooching on the Island, last winter, he flew to Oxfordshire, where he lived beside flooded meadows, feeding chiefly on gulls, wild ducks, wood pigeons and rabbits – a good proportion likely scavenged.

In May this year, G3 93 flew to the North Yorkshire Moors, and stayed there for several months. Here, he was regularly seen hunting rabbits, which are locally abundant, especially in areas managed for driven grouse shooting. His story reminded me of the rare and majestic imperial eagles of the Castilla La Mancha region of Spain, where private hunting estates employ gamekeepers to control foxes and other predators, to encourage wild red-legged partridges to breed well. As a result, the rabbit population – which is considered a crucial prey resource for imperial eagles – also prospers.

In July, G3 93 flew to West Norfolk, where he took up residence near a reservoir, and became expert at hunting black-headed gulls, which amass around nearby outdoor pig-rearing units. This eagle is still in Norfolk. If you are lucky, you might spot him floating across the huge expanses of mud on The Wash, where you may see him hunting wintering waterfowl or feeding on a stranded carcass. Recently, he was making good use of a dead seal.

Back on the Isle of Wight, the project team continues to forge positive relations with gamekeepers and farmers. Most are in listening mode, with lots of learning going on, on both sides. Everyone is interested to know what white-tailed eagles living along the South Coast eat, and by analysing regurgitated pellets, collected from under favourite roosting trees, the project will learn which of the many different food resources in the region are important. I was interested to hear that one eagle has been observed taking cuttlefish from offshore seagrass beds, whilst another was taking bass from rocky reefs along the island’s rugged south-west coast.

Clearly, the project is very much in its infancy, and it would be churlish to assume that people’s views will always remain the same, but so far, it seems that white-tailed eagles have been broadly welcomed on the Island. Paragliders have flown with them, anglers have fished with them, and the shooting community has enjoyed watching them too.

About a year ago, on the opening drive of the day, the familiar sound of tapping sticks and garrulous young beaters came my way. I was stood in the gunline, with my back to an expanse of woodland, on a small syndicate shoot in the West Wight. Pheasants began to break cover, and on my end of the line, several high-flying hen pheasants tested the Guns. Within a minute, there was an almost synchronous turning of heads, for the volley of gunfire disturbed a young eagle from the woods behind us. On it came, flapping over the line, about 40 yards up. Talk about a show-stopper. Guns were lowered, and sharp young eyes and wrinkled old eyes, watched in awe, as the young eagle fanned its colossal eight-foot wings, its distinctive curled primary feathers pointing upwards, and departed towards the Downs.

Having gathered up the few handfuls of dead pheasants at the end of the drive, Guns and beaters formed a loose huddle. Spectacular, awesome, amazing, goose-bumps: it was heartening to hear such positive words from a community of people often maligned for misdemeanours against raptors. For this crowd at least, their eagle encounter brought joy, and it certainly spiced up their shoot day.

If you have any concerns about the South Coast White-tailed eagle project, or would like to report a sighting, the Project Officer will be glad to hear from you. Please contact stephen.egerton-read@forestryengland.uk. If you have any concerns specifically relating to game management, I would like to hear from you too, so they’re fully understood and reported: mshort@gwct.org.uk.

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