top of page

White Tailed Eagles Gracing English Skies

Madelaine Stannard reports on the white-tailed eagle’s historic return to the South of England, and the future of these majestic raptors.


Being the first of their kind to successfully rear and fledge a chick in England for 240 years, a white-tailed eagle pair have made history. Before the arduous conservation journey, these raptors were eradicated from English skies and the Irish village Eyeries at the time of King George III’s rule, over 240 years ago. Despite managing to cling on in the wilds of Scotland, until the last individual was gunned down at the end of the First World War, England’s largest bird of prey has been noticeably absent - for centuries.


The young white-tailed eagle chick, viewed through binoculars. Image Credit: Apex/Forestry England.


Only now, after a successful reintroduction programme based on the Isle of Wight and the surrounding Solent Strait, does the future look considerably brighter.


Similar releases and translocations began on the Isle of Rum, Scotland’s crown jewel of the Inner Hebrides, between 1975 and 1985. The work was pioneered by champion conservationist Roy Dennis, who engineered the project involving the translocation of a whopping eighty-two juvenile white-tailed eagles from Norway.


Joining the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation (RDWF) project in the late seventies, the RSPB (now alongside NatureScot), currently heads the programme formally known as the Sea Eagle Project Team. A further fifty-eight releases in the nineties, plus a five-year effort beginning in 2007 (this time based in eastern Scotland) marked what was an outstanding success in reintroducing the white-tailed eagle to its former Scottish haunts.


Yet, the white-tail remained absent from England, where centuries ago it was the most apex raptorial predator to patrol the skies along the southern coast. Starting in 2019, a partnership between the RDWF and Forestry England set out to change this. After being granted licences by Natural England and Nature Scot, work began to focus efforts on the Isle of Wight.


With the nearby Solent providing exemplary estuarine habitats, and a plethora of migratory water birds abundant in the area, the Isle of Wight provides suitable space, solitude and scenery for such large predators, at the very peak of the food web. As observed on the Isle of Mull - a stronghold for the eagles boasting an estimated £5M ecotourism boost to the economy annually - it is thought that the Isle of Wight and surrounding areas could see increased tourism too, a further draw to continue recolonising the area with this missing species.


White-tailed eagles photographed on the Isle of Mull. Image Credit: Madelaine Stannard/@maddie__stannard_wild.


White-tailed eagles do not begin to breed until they are five or six years of age, and even then may only fledge a chick every two years. If a chick does hatch, it must face numerous threats to its survival, not neglecting persecution, extreme weather, and as of late, avian influenza. Just last year, a chick was found dead on Mull, having contracted HPAI and succumbing to the disease.


It is challenges such as these that make it all the more wonderful to see the first breeding pair successfully rear and fledge a chick in England, in a landmark event. Since the start of the programme, twenty-five birds (collected as chicks from Scotland under licence from NatureScot, before being translocated) have been released on the Isle of Wight. Making migratory journeys ranging as far as the Netherlands, France, and Denmark, and as close as Norfolk and North Yorkshire. But this pair, it seems, are finally ready to settle down and give conservationists hope for the future of white-tailed eagles.


Project Officer, Steve Egerton-Read describes being “utterly elated” upon discovering the chick, and Roy Dennis regards the moment as both a “significant milestone”, and “special moment”. With more releases planned for this summer, this is just the start of what conservationists and many nature-enthusiasts hope will be a bountiful future for these magnificent birds.


About the Author: Madelaine Stannard is a Zoology student at the University of Sheffield, with a keen interest in science communication, rewilding, carnivore ecology and endangered species. You can find her on Instagram @maddie__stannard_wild.




Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page