Britain’s white-tailed eagles on the Isle of Wight flew as far as Scotland in 2020 as the reintroduction of the once-extinct bird continues to thrive
- The first six white-tailed eagles were released last year on the Isle of Wight
- Seven more have been released in 2020 and jin the four surviving from 2019
- The first cohort from last year have been flying further afield and have been spotted in the skies above Scotland and Norfolk
The first white-tailed eagles in southern England for centuries have been spreading their wings throughout 2020, the team behind a reintroduction project today said.
A group of young eagles were released on the Isle of Wight in 2019 and as part of a five-year project are being closely monitored.
The project team, led by the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation and Forestry England, has released a gallery of images taken by birdwatchers of the birds in the wild.
In the Spring of 2020 the eagles released the previous year started to make their first major exploratory flights, tracked by solar-powered satellite tags on their bodies.
They have been spotted by nature lovers as they ranged as far away as Scotland, Yorkshire and Norfolk.
Four of the six released in 2019 survived their first year of life and seven more have chicks were released at the Isle of Wight site earlier this year.
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The project team, led by the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation and Forestry England, has released a gallery of images taken by birdwatchers of the birds in the wild
In the Spring of 2020 the eagles released the previous year started to make their first major exploratory flights, tracked by solar-powered satellite tags on their bodies
Their flights took them over populated places, including central London, giving people living under lockdown a chance to see a long-lost natural sight.
The white-tailed eagle has a black-ridged tail, golden eyes and have yellow talons, legs and beaks.
The white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) disappeared from the UK during the early 20th century but has been brought back from the brink.
The species is the largest bird of prey in the UK with a wingspan pushing eight feet (2.4 metres) and a body length of up to three feet (90cm).
It suffered huge declines in Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries and it is still persecuted by gamekeepers because it feeds on birds, rabbits and hares.
In August, despite restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the team released a further seven birds, after they were flown down from Scotland by pilot Graham Mountford and his daughter Helen.
The reintroduction project to bring them back to the south coast, where they were once widespread, involves releasing up to 60 birds taken from the wild population in Scotland as youngsters, over five years.
Four of the six released in 2019 survived their first year, and it is expected birds in the project will settle within 30 miles of the release site on the Isle of Wight when they breed at around four to five years old.
Roy Dennis said it had been a ‘very encouraging year’ for the project.
‘Two of the older eagles have become expert at catching fish in the estuaries and open seas, while the other two located rabbit warrens for food,’ he said.
The white-tailed eagle has a black-ridged tail, golden eyes and have yellow talons, legs and beaks. The white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) disappeared from the UK during the early 20th century but has been brought back from the brink
Tim Mackrill, an ornithologist with the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, said the satellite tags had delivered fantastic data including where the birds were ranging, and how much of the time they were on the wing or resting
‘One female summered in the Scottish Borders and we were very excited when she flew back to the island to join her partner, as well as meeting the new cohort of seven young eagles released this year.
‘We’ve been particularly pleased that some people have viewed eagles flying over from their gardens during lockdown and to have received so many enthusiastic and supportive messages.
‘The project is still in its infancy but sea eagles have again become part of life in southern England.’
Tim Mackrill, an ornithologist with the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, said the satellite tags had delivered fantastic data including where the birds were ranging, and how much of the time they were on the wing or resting.
‘For the first two years, white-tailed eagles are known to wander really widely because they don’t reach breeding age until they are four or five years old.
‘The period they are in at the moment is about learning the landscape, and building up their life skills, learning to be a white-tailed eagle.’
The return of one of the birds from Scotland to the Isle of Wight is a sign it thinks of the island as home, while another had developed from relying on carrion to catching fish in the Solent, he said.
The team plans to continue releases in the next few years to build up a population on the south coast of six to eight breeding pairs.
REINTRODUCING THE WHITE TAILED SEA EAGLE
White-tailed eagles, or white-tailed sea eagles, were once widespread along the whole of the south coast of England, from Cornwall to Kent, before being driven to extinction by relentless persecution that began in the Middle Ages.
It was believed that they could deplete populations of game animals, as they feed on various birds, rabbits and hares.
The species suffered huge declines in Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries and was driven to extinction in the UK, mainly through persecution.
It has since been reintroduced to the west coast of Scotland and more recently to the east coast, and a reintroduction programme is currently underway in Ireland.
As with many birds of prey, the species suffered huge losses in the 1950s and 1960s due to organochlorine pesticides such as DDT, which caused egg shell thinning.
The last pair bred on Culver Cliff on the Isle of Wight in 1780.
Following the reintroduction of White-tailed Eagles to Scotland – where there are now over 130 breeding pairs – Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation was granted licences by Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage to begin an English reintroduction.
In the UK white tailed eagles are strictly protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004.
It is an offence to intentionally take, injure or kill a white-tailed eagle or to take, damage or destroy its nest, eggs or young.
It is also an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb the birds close to their nest during the breeding season.
Violation can result in a fine of up to £5000 and/or a prison sentence of up to six months.
Despite this, threats still exist. The main current threat in the UK is persecution, predominantly through poisoning, something which has overshadowed the otherwise successful reintroduction programmes.
Illegal egg collection remains an additional threat.
Re-establishing a population of the species on the south coast helps to restore ‘a lost species’, Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation said.
The project will help to link populations in Scotland and Ireland with those in the Netherlands and France.
In Scotland the best places to see white-tailed eagles are Mull, Skye and parts of the northwest Highlands.
Many parts of southern England are capable of supporting breeding and wintering White-tailed Eagles, but the Isle of Wight was considered the most suitable location for the reintroduction.
It is the last known breeding site of the species in southern England and is located close to highly suitable foraging areas in the Solent and surrounding estuaries.
It also has numerous potential nesting sites in woods and cliffs and quiet areas for immature birds.
And it is well positioned to facilitate the dispersal of eagles both west and east along the coast to sites such as Poole Harbour in Dorset and Pagham Harbour in West Sussex.
Source: Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation/RSPB
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