2011 has proved another record-breaking year for breeding pairs of Scotland’s largest bird of prey as the numbers of white-tailed eagles, sometimes referred to as ‘sea eagles’ soared to new heights despite heavy storms throughout the 2011 breeding season. An adult bird has an impressive eight-foot wing span and striking white tail, making the white-tailed eagle a spectacular sight that can round off a great day’s hillwalking or climbing.
Conservationists, and many sea eagle enthusiasts, had been concerned that the high winds felt across Scotland in May could have had a detrimental impact on breeding white-tailed eagles at the vulnerable part of the season when most nests contain small chicks. Indeed, some nests failed including that of BBC Springwatch star, nicknamed ‘Itchy’, who experts fear lost his chicks in the storm. However, the bad weather failed to blow the species off course. Recent survey figures for the 2011 breeding season reveal that there were 57 territorial pairs in Scotland, an increase of 10% on the previous year. A total of 43 young fledged successfully from these nests.
White-tailed eagles finally became extinct in Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century, due to human persecution and collecting of eggs and skins. After an absence of over half a century, a re-introduction programme began in 1975 on the Isle of Rum in the Inner Hebrides, aimed at returning these majestic raptors to the Scottish skies. Since then, the species’ population has been steadily recovering, and conservationists believe there are now as many ‘flying barn doors’, as they are affectionately known, in the UK as there were over 150 years ago.
The successful breeding season on the west coast comes as a further 16 white-tailed eagle chicks, gifted by the people of Norway, were released from a secret location in Fife in August. The chicks are part of a six-year project, now entering its final year, to increase and expand the range of this iconic species into its former haunts in the east of Scotland.
Duncan Orr-Ewing, Head of Species and Land Management at RSPB Scotland, said, “The white-tailed eagle is part of Scotland’s rich natural heritage and it is fantastic to see them back where they belong and gradually increasing in numbers and range on the west coast. They are improving biodiversity in this country and bringing in important economic benefits to the communities they soar above. Now with the east coast reintroduction entering its final year, we are anticipating the first steps towards the establishment of a breeding population of sea eagles on the other side of Scotland. There is plenty of suitable habitat and natural wild prey to support a healthy population.”