White-tailed eagle Haliaeetus albicilla. Photo by Ian McCarthy.

White tailed eagle population trends

The white-tailed eagle was fairly common throughout much of Europe until the early nineteenth century.

A history of decline

Numbers started to decrease dramatically in the early nineteenth century because of persecution that resulted in the loss of many of the western European populations.

While conservation measures allowed the species to recover in the 1970s, the impact of mercury and of organochlorine and other pesticides continued to reduce the breeding success into the 1980s.

The white-tailed eagle was widespread in Scotland and Ireland in the 18th century, and also bred in England and the Isle of Man. More than 100 eyries were known in Britain and at least 50 in Ireland in the early 19th century. 

The species became extinct in the UK as a result of direct and sustained persecution by shepherds, gamekeepers, fishery owners, skin collectors and egg collectors. Habitat loss was not a factor. 

By 1800 the species had disappeared from England. It survived in Ireland a little longer, but by 1900 only a handful of pairs remained on the British Isles, all in Scotland. The last breeding record in Scotland was on the Isle of Skye in 1916, and the last British white-tailed eagle was shot in Shetland two years later.

A white tailed eagle in flight over water, preparing to catch a fish.

Successful breeding

A re-introduction programme by the Nature Conservancy Council (now NatureScot) and the RSPB started in 1975.

In the following ten years, 82 young eagles from Norway were released on the Isle of Rum in the Inner Hebrides. The first successful breeding took place on Mull in 1985, and since then a growing number of pairs have nested successfully every year. Further releases from 1993 to 1998 in Wester Ross and between 2007 and 2012 in Fife have ensured that the population became self-sustaining, and it is now able to support new reintroduction projects in England through the donation of chicks.

In Scotland, we are extremely grateful for the support of the Norwegian Government and white-tailed eagle experts who supported this work. At around 150 breeding pairs in Scotland, the white-tailed eagle is included on the Red List of UK birds of conservation concern. This is because of the previous long-term population decline, and since it remains a scarce rare breeder in the UK and across its European range. Populations are now recovering well both in the UK and abroad.

White-tailed eagle population growth models have suggested that by 2025 there could be over 200 breeding pairs.

RSPB East Scotland Sea Eagle Project.