White-tailed eagle Haliaeetus albicilla.

White-tailed eagle

The RSPB's work has helped the white-tailed eagle, the UK's largest bird of prey, to return to the stunning landscapes of Scotland.

White-tailed eagles in the UK

Species status

  • Phase of recovery: Recovery
  • Red list Bird of Conservation Concern      

Lost from the UK

White-tailed eagles became extinct in the UK as a result of extensive habitat change combined, particularly in the 19th century, with persecution. Before their recent re-introduction, the birds last bred in England and Wales in the 1830s, in Ireland in 1898 and in Scotland in 1916.  

The last UK-bred bird was shot in Shetland in 1918. European populations of this bird also suffered from heavy persecution, which led to significant declines and extinction in several countries.

Re-introduction

In 1968 small-scale attempts were made to introduce these birds in Argyll and Fair Isle. The government’s Nature Conservancy Council initiated a full-scale programme of releases, bringing 82 young birds from Norwegian nests to Rum between 1975 and 1985.  

The RSPB became involved in the re-introduction of white-tailed eagles in the late 1970s. As birds released on Rum started to wander around the western seaboard of Scotland, the RSPB had responsibility for finding, monitoring and protecting newly occupied territories. 

The first re-introduced white-tailed eagles bred in 1983, and the first chick fledged in 1985. However, because white-tailed eagles do not start breeding until they are five or six years old, and even then a pair may only fledge one young every two years, the increase in the population was slow. With the numbers so low, there was a real risk that chance deaths could lead to the re-introduced population becoming extinct. 

To reduce the risk of the eagles becoming extinct once more, between 1993 and 1998, a further 58 young eagles that hatched in nests in Norway were released by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) in Wester Ross. 

A third phase of the reintroduction project took place on the east coast of Scotland between 2007 and 2012. A total of 85 young birds were released and in 2013 the first pair of birds from the east coast project bred successfully fledging a single chick. This was the first pair to breed in that part of Scotland for more than 200 years. A similar project took place in Ireland from 2007 to 2011 when 100 young birds were released in Killarney National Park, Co Kerry with the first successful breeding also taking place in 2013.

There are now more than 100 territorial pairs in Scotland. The recovery in Britain is reflected across many other parts of Europe, particularly around the Baltic. While the population remains small, the potential impacts of persecution, disturbance and egg collecting remain high. 

At least seven white-tailed eagles have been killed illegally since the start of the project and at least four clutches of eggs have been stolen. Nevertheless, the population continues to grow and is calculated to be self-sustaining.

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

Working together

Increasingly close partnership working between the RSPB, police and local communities – combined with the introduction of custodial sentences for convictions of wildlife crime – appears to have neutralised the impact of egg collectors during a critical stage of population growth. There have been no known nest robberies since 2000. 

The concerns of sheep farmers have been addressed by maintaining close liaison with farmers and crofters and by encouraging SNH to implement research and management schemes. Projects on Skye and Mull have raised the profile of white-tailed eagles by encouraging the public to see the birds safely. 

The high level of interest shown by visitors has encouraged the community to value white-tailed eagles more highly and the public sites may well have taken the pressure off nests otherwise vulnerable to disturbance. 

White-tailed eagles have featured widely in UK and international films, tv and other media since the reintroduction project began. The RSPB Film Unit produced a multi-award-winning film called Eagle Odyssey and the long running popular BBC series Springwatch, Autumnwatch and Winterwatch have all featured sea eagles on a regular basis since it began in 2005 with a live outside broadcast from a sea eagle nest on Mull.

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

Continuing efforts

The re-established population on the west coast of Scotland is increasing. There is plenty of apparently suitable habitat still unoccupied by white-tailed eagles, giving considerable scope for continued population growth.

Acknowledgements 

The re-introduction of white-tailed eagles to Scotland was pioneered by Roy Dennis and is now overseen by the Sea Eagle Project Team, jointly chaired by the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage, also benefiting from expertise from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and the National Trust for Scotland. 

The project could not have succeeded without support in Norway from Harald Misund, the Directorate for Nature Management, the County Governor, Department of the Environment in Salten District and the Havern Club, Bode. The Royal Air Force and the Royal Norwegian Air Force transported the young eagles between Norway and Scotland. 

For the third phase on the east coast, the RSPB wishes to thank the people of Norway, the Norwegian Authorities and field staff along with the Scottish Government, SNH and local farmers, landowners and local communities in Fife.

In Scotland, we gratefully acknowledge support over the years of, among others, Forestry Commission Scotland, Police Scotland, as well as landowners, crofters, farmers, fishermen, wildlife tour operators, volunteers and others in rural communities in the west of Scotland. 

RSPB East Scotland Sea Eagle Project.