When eagles dared!
Last modified: 08 June 2012
Eagles would once have soared widely across English skies, but they disappeared at the hands of man: that's a key finding from a new study looking at the historic distribution of Britain and Ireland's two largest birds of prey.
The new research, published in the journal Bird Study, reveals that human persecution and habitat destruction have had a considerable impact on eagles over the last 1500 years. The study concludes that both white-tailed eagles and golden eagles were once found across large tracts of lowland and upland Britain and Ireland, but populations plummeted as a result of human activity.
Richard Evans, of RSPB Scotland and lead author of the study, said: "The results of this study are striking as they provide compelling evidence that eagles were widespread throughout most of Britain and Ireland in the Dark Ages. Between 500 and 1800AD we see massive loss of eagle range in the south, which is consistent with the effects of habitat loss and killing by humans, rather than the influence of climate change on habitat, or competitive exclusion, as some have suggested.”
Using a combination of place-name analysis, historic records and modern knowledge of the species' ecology, researchers were able to estimate the former range and population of both eagles between 500 AD and the present day.
Although both eagles are found in Scotland, the species are now no more than casual visitors to England. But the research shows that, historically, both species would have been reasonably widespread across the entire UK. The golden eagle would have occurred in the English uplands, such as the Peak District National Park and the North York Moors, while the white-tailed eagle would have been dispersed across lowland England, especially at coastal and wetland sites.
Continued killing by humans eventually led to the UK extinction of the white-tailed eagle in the early years of the 20th century, while golden eagles still struggle in some parts of their range as a result of illegal persecution, and their recovery has now stalled. The limited recovery of white-tailed eagles has only been possible by reintroduction. Although the reintroduced white-tailed eagle population is healthy, at present they occupy only a fraction of their historic range.
A report commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage in 2008, showed that illegal persecution in parts of Scotland is a probable reason why golden eagles have not been able to recolonise England successfully as a nesting species.
Sue Armstrong-Brown, of the RSPB, said: “There have been many changes in our countryside over the last few centuries, but we believe there is ample potential for eagles to return to skies where they have been absent for centuries. We’re not talking about a return to the Dark Ages, but we are asking for more enlightened attitudes to eradicate illegal persecution, which is still a major reason why these birds can’t return to England.”
Commenting on Richard Evans’ study, Scotland’s Environment Minister Stewart Stevenson said: "This informative study tells us much about the former distribution of eagles across Scotland. Birds of prey are an important part of Scotland's biodiversity and our eagles are hugely popular with locals and visitors alike.
"The recent marked increase in sea eagles demonstrates how conservation and management efforts are beginning to make a real difference for these beautiful and iconic birds. The Scottish Government is also committed to working with our partners to tackle eagle persecution, with 2011 figures showing a welcome reduction in poisoning incidents for birds of prey."
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