The eagle with the sunlit eye
White-tailed eagles were driven to extinction in the UK, but with help, they’ve been making a comeback.
White-tailed eagles are the UK’s largest bird of prey, bigger even than golden eagles, with a wingspan of up to eight feet. But there’s not just a size difference between the two birds. You’d be lucky to catch a glimpse of a golden eagle soaring high above a remote Highland glen. White-tailed eagles will nest on golf courses and take free fish hand-outs from boats. Wandering juveniles have been spotted over cities, and even filmed landing on chimney pots!
In Gaelic, white-tailed eagles are often known as iolaire sùil na grèine, which means "the eagle with the sunlit eye". But a good Scots word for them would be gallus, which means bold and cheeky.
White-tailed eagle call
Jarek Matusiak, Xeno-canto
Not the shy and retiring types
Through place names and archaeological evidence, we know that white-tailed eagles were once found across the UK, often living close to people, and even scavenging the sites of great battles. Their remains have been found alongside burials in Neolithic tombs, and their likeness can be seen carved into impressive stone monuments.
Like other birds of prey, though, they were persecuted throughout the Middle Ages, and fell foul to the expansion of agriculture and gaming estates. Being so big and obvious, they were also an easy target for persecution, and by the early 19th Century, they were extinct in England. They clung on longer in Scotland, until a lone male on Shetland, said to be the last survivor, was shot in 1918.
While some celebrated their eradication, a growing conservation movement in the 20th century started to question both the impacts of their loss on our native wildlife, and the morality of having driven such a magnificent, and culturally important species to extinction.
The return of the eagles
The first attempt to bring back white-tailed eagles was in 1968 on Fair Isle, a tiny island that sits between Orkney and Shetland. Sadly, the project was unsuccessful as not enough birds were released, but important lessons and new techniques were learned. In 1975, The RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage worked together to release 82 eagles over 10 years onto the island of Rum in the Inner Hebrides. These birds were taken as chicks from nests in Norway, and then reared in special cages with minimal human contact. They were released as soon as they were able to fly, and then left to adapt to the wild, empty skies (with the help of a little bit of food just to get them started).
White-tailed eagles are slow breeders, with females not pairing up until they’re at least five, and early nesting attempts usually ending in failure. However, wild white-tailed eagle chicks were finally hatched out on Mull in 1985, much to the joy of everyone involved. The adult female of that first pair was nicknamed ‘Blondie’ and she went on to live to the ripe old age of 21, and raise a total of 15 chicks.
Further eagles were released in Wester Ross between 1993 and 1998, and then a final reintroduction took place on the east coast of Scotland between 2007 and 2012, to ensure a more stable and widespread population.
These birds have had a big impact, becoming the stars of Springwatch in 2005 and drawing thousands of wildlife tourists to Mull each year, contributing millions to the local economy.
A slow spread
Today, there are at least 140 pairs of white-tailed eagles in Scotland, breeding from Hoy on Orkney to the island of Islay. They spread slowly, with individuals reluctant to move too far from their own hatching sites, but after 35 years, they are now starting to fill up vacant territories across Argyll and into the Highlands, with successful nesting also taking place in Speyside, Fife and Angus. If you caught this year’s Springwatch, you will also have seen Gordon Buchanan revealing the arrival of white-tailed eagles on the Lake of Menteith, which is just 25 miles north of Glasgow.
With the success of the reintroductions in Scotland, conservationists have looked for other suitable places in the UK for white-tailed eagles to thrive, and in 2019, the Roy Dennis Foundation started a new project on the Isle of White. Six young white-tailed eagles have been released so far, with more releases planned over the next few years. Another reintroduction project is also underway in Ireland.
A bright future
The white-tailed eagle has probably endured more vilification than any other bird of prey in the UK, and it’s still subject to disturbance and persecution, but after years of hard work and dedication by hundreds of individuals, they are now back in our skies. These gallus birds are a proud part of our history stretching back thousands of years. Let’s hope they continue to be a proud part of our future.