A white-tailed eagle with prey

The Return of the Eagles

After an absence of 240 years, white-tail eagles can be seen flying above England again thanks to this collaboration

The last known breeding place of the white-tailed eagle in the UK was Culver Cliff on the Isle of Wight. The blend of cliff edges and nearby woodlands provided ideal nesting sites while the Solent and surrounding estuaries provided a steady supply of food.

But for the last 240 years, these majestic birds – with their 2-metre long wingspan and white wedge-shaped tails – have been absent from British skies, driven to extinction by illegal hunting.

Now, a five-year initiative by the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation and Forestry England are helping these birds make a comeback. Six birds were released on the Isle of Wight in August 2019 and two have recently been seen roosting in North Yorkshire.

The birds are the first of several cohorts that will be released over the next five years; there will be around 60 birds in total. They have been brought to the Isle of Wight from Scotland, where the last bird was shot in Shetland in 1918. Those eagles were reintroduced in Scotland in the 1970s, initially brought across from Norway.

When the first birds were released in August, Roy Dennis, Founder of the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, said:

‘I have spent much of my life working on the reintroduction of these amazing birds and so watching them take to the skies of the Isle of Wight has been a truly special moment.

Establishing a population of white-tailed eagles in the south of England will link and support emerging populations of these birds in the Netherlands, France and Ireland, with the aim of restoring the species to the southern half of Europe. The team is pleased that the project fulfils one of the specific aims of the Government’s 25 year Environment Plan.’

While the birds typically stay in place over the winter, it’s normal for young males to spend their first two years exploring widely and learning the landscape. They then return home and begin breeding at four or five years old.

A white-tailed eagle with prey
Dorothea Oldani, Unsplash.

Dr Tim Mackrill is documenting the journeys of the birds thanks to satellite tracking data. As mentioned earlier, two of the young male eagles have been exploring Yorkshire, one who has been present in the North York Moors since 5 April and the other who spent about a week there before exploring further afield. By the time he’d returned to the moors from the Peak District at the end of April, he’d flown 650 miles across central and eastern England.

In addition to restoring the species to its natural habitat, there is the hope that it will give the local economy a boost too. Forestry England notes that ‘a similar scheme on the Isle of Mull was found to have boosted its local economy by up to £5 million a year, demonstrating the interest in this iconic bird’.

Chairman of Natural England, Tony Juniper, said:

‘The return of these spectacular birds to England is a real landmark for conservation. I very much hope that it will also provide a practical demonstration of the fact that we can actually reverse the historic decline of our depleted natural environment.

It will also show how helping the recovery of our wildlife can be done at the same time as bringing benefits for people, in this case by offering a boost to the local economy through wildlife tourism, as has happened in Scotland after these birds were reintroduced there back in the 1970s.’

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