Results from the fourth national golden eagle survey show that the population of these birds of prey has increased to 508 pairs in Scotland. That is a rise of 15% since the previous survey in 2003, when 442 pairs were recorded, and indicates recovery of the population towards levels thought to have been present in this country historically.
Golden eagles are regarded by many people as Scotland's national bird and it is more than likely that Scotland is actually home to the entire UK population, following reports earlier this year (2016) that England's only resident golden eagle is feared to have died (1).
The national survey was carried out during the first six months of 2015 and was co-funded by the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). Fieldwork was carried out by expert licensed volunteers from the Scottish Raptor Study Group and professional surveyors from the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science.
The results are significant because the eagle population, having surpassed 500 pairs, now meets the targets identified to define it as having 'favourable conservation status' in the UK (2). The population increase also highlights the continuing steady recovery in Scotland from very low numbers in the mid-19th century (3).
Golden eagles tend to live in remote areas, but can often be seen performing their spectacular undulating flight displays in spring. The northern Highlands and the central spine of the country, between the Great Glen and Stirlingshire, saw the greatest increase in eagle numbers between 2003 and 2015. Recovery also continues in much of the west Highlands and islands with modest increases noted there. However, this positive progress is not consistent across Scotland.
Part of the Highlands west of Inverness has remained stable between 2003 and 2015, after showing a significant drop in occupied territories between the 1982 and 1992 surveys. The reasons for the lack of recovery in this area aren't clear, but likely involve a number of factors. Previously, grazing pressure by deer reducing habitat quality for eagle prey, persecution, recreation and forestry have all been identified as potential factors affecting eagles in this area. The poor spring and summer weather also had an adverse impact on breeding success, especially in the western parts of Scotland.
Golden eagles also continue to be absent in many parts of the eastern Highlands. Less than one third of the traditional 'home ranges' in this area were occupied by a pair of eagles and no eagles were recorded at all in over 30% of them, despite the fact that these should be very productive landscapes for these birds. Many of the vacant territories in this area are on ground managed intensively for driven grouse shooting and in recent years, four eagles fitted with satellite tags have been found illegally killed in the central and eastern Highlands (4).
Duncan Orr-Ewing, Head of Species and Land Management at RSPB Scotland, said:"The sight of a golden eagle soaring in the sky above is an awe-inspiring part of our natural heritage, and this increase in numbers of golden eagle pairs is great news. Across many parts of Scotland there's been a very welcome turnaround in how people respect these magnificent birds, part of a more enlightened public attitude towards birds of prey. Increased monitoring and satellite tagging of eagles, as well as stronger sanctions against wildlife crime may be serving as effective deterrents against illegal activity, therefore helping their population to increase. However, the continued absence of golden eagles in some areas of eastern Scotland remains a real cause for concern and suggests that much more work needs to be done."
Andrew Bachell, SNH's Director of Policy & Advice, said: "It's wonderful to see golden eagles reaching favourable conservation status nationally. These beautiful birds are such an important part of Scotland's nature, a species which people love to see when they visit our wilder landscapes. It's particularly encouraging to see greater recovery in some areas where persecution had been thought to be a major constraint in the past. That picture is uneven though, and we would still expect eagles to be doing better in parts of the eastern Highlands. We will continue to look at all the factors which may be limiting numbers, in the hope that we will see further spread of the range and increase in numbers of eagles in the future. We continue to work with the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime Scotland (PAW Scotland) group to combat persecution of birds of prey."
Daniel Hayhow, lead author of the study, said: "The huge national survey effort required a minimum three visits to over 700 known traditional golden eagle sites, the length and breadth of Scotland. We thank the voluntary Scottish Raptor Study Group for the dedication and expertise of their surveyors, who went out in all weathers in some of the remotest parts of Scotland. Without them we simply would not have the vital data needed to assess the numbers of these magnificent birds. We also acknowledge the help and support of many landowners and farmers who provided invaluable logistical support on the ground."
Patrick Stirling-Aird, Scottish Raptor Study Group Secretary, said:"The Scottish Raptor Study Group is very pleased to have played a key role in the 2015 national golden eagle survey and welcomes the recorded increase in the bird's numbers since the previous 2003 survey, in essence a recovery from a lower level brought about by human agency. The Scottish Raptor Study Group is grateful for the help given to its surveyors by land owners and land managers in many locations but will analyse and pay particular attention to golden eagle population recovery (or the continuing lack of it) in parts of the central and eastern Highlands."
Tim Baynes, Director of the Scottish Moorland Group, part of Scottish Land & Estates, said: "Our members are passionate about the golden eagles on their land and it is in large part a tribute to their management and collaboration that the population has increased. They have helped the surveyors and worked with Scottish Natural Heritage in the interest of golden eagles for many years. The east Highlands still have the highest level of productivity (young per pair) and a stable number of occupied territories over more than three decades. The south central Highlands, which includes significant areas of driven grouse moor has shown by far the greatest increase in range occupancy - 70% - since 2003. Overall, we are pleased that golden eagles are now in 'favourable conservation status' for the first time since national surveys started."
- England's last golden eagle had been resident at Riggindale at Haweswater in Cumbria since 2001/02. However, he failed to appear this spring (2016), leading RSPB staff and volunteers at its Lake District home to fear the worst. More information here: https://adwww.rspb.org.uk/news/417562-rspb-fears-the-worst-for-englands-last-golden-eagle-
- The 500 pairs figure is the level set for a golden eagle favourable conservation status in Scotland as a whole in the 2008 Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No.193 (ROAME No. F05AC306), A conservation framework for golden eagles: implications for their conservation and management in Scotland.by D P Whitfield, AH Fielding, D R A McLeod, and P F Haworth. See: http://www.snh.org.uk/pdfs/publications/commissioned_reports/193.pdf
- Golden eagles were once common across Great Britain but had disappeared from Wales and England by the mid 19th century due to widespread persecution. Part of the surviving population in Scotland suffered a sharp decline in breeding success in the 1960s due to organochlorine pesticides which caused mass infertility and eggshell thinning.
- The four satellite-tagged golden eagles which were found illegally killed in the Central and Eastern Highlands are "Alma" in 2009, a bird in Glenbuchat in 2011, a trapped bird in Millden in 2012 and "Fearnan" in 2013.