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Population trends

Golden eagles are widespread throughout Eurasia and North America. They are found at low density in remote areas of the Scottish Highlands and most of the Hebrides. A handful of pairs survive in south-west Scotland, while in recent years one pair has bred in England, in the Lake District.

Even though juvenile birds range widely, they have not attempted to colonise many of the apparently suitable areas in northern England and south-east Scotland. This is thought to be the result of deliberate persecution and incidental disturbance in these areas.

Golden eagles were originally distributed all over Europe, but like most other raptors, they were widely killed, which caused serious declines both in their numbers and range. Large-scale land use changes created further problems, and the species became extinct over large tracts of central Europe in the 19th century.

In the UK, the population began to decline in the 18th century as a result of illegal killing by sheep farmers, aggravated in the 19th century by shooting by gamekeepers. The golden eagle was exterminated in England and Wales by 1850, and in Ireland by 1912. Despite this widespread killing, it managed to survive in small numbers in Scotland.

In the 1950s and 1960s eagles suffered badly from organochlorine pesticides which concentrated in their bodies causing widespread infertility and eggshell thinning. After the banning of these chemicals and aided by strong conservation measures, the golden eagle population has slowly recovered in Scotland, although large tracts of its former range are still unoccupied. 

A pair returned to breed in the Lake District in 1969, but this nest, despite being reasonably successful until recent years, has remained the only one in England. The disappearance of the female in 2004 left the continued presence of golden eagles in the Lake District in jeopardy. In 2003 there were 431 breeding pairs - all but one in Scotland.

Bird guide