In today’s blog, Laurence Rose, Species Recovery Projects Volunteer reflects back on the history of one of the RSPB’s conservation success stories – that of the White-tailed Eagle. Join us as Laurence delves into the archives and puts the record straight over the story of an egg-thieving vicar. 

After I ‘retired’ from the RSPB in January 2022, I was asked to compile some of the stories of our long-term species recovery projects, to give credit to the many partner organisations and past collaborators and colleagues. Saving species isn’t something that can be achieved overnight, it takes years and even decades to turn the tide and it’s important that we record the twists and turns of this challenging work to recover populations of species under threat. Creating such an archive gives us an opportunity to reflect on past challenges and how they were addressed.

The story of the White-tailed Eagle
One of the long-term projects that I am documenting is the story of the White-tailed Eagle. And delving into the early history of its conservation, I find I’ve turned cold-case detective.

The last UK native White-tailed Eagle prior to reintroduction went missing from Shetland in 1918. © Amanda Jane Fergusson Photography.

The last UK native White-tailed Eagle prior to reintroduction was a rare iolair bhàn or white eagle, a very pale-plumaged male (long believed to be female) at least 30 years old. He went missing from Shetland, probably shot, in 1918, having lost his mate eight years earlier. The last birdwatcher to see him was James Hay, a 48-year-old crofter and fisherman. He had been employed by the fledgling RSPB since 1909 and was one of a number of Watchers – local people engaged to keep an eye on Britain’s rarest species, especially those vulnerable to persecution or collectors. The bird and his mate were the last pair to nest in Shetland. Pennington et. al. in The Birds of Shetland, note that their final nest together was robbed in 1910 before the female disappeared forever. They reproduce an eye-witness account naming the perpetrator only as a clergyman called Sorby who came from Derby. The last nest of all – until reintroduction – was in Skye in 1916.

Hay had assisted the artist George Lodge when he arrived in Shetland to paint the last of the eagles from life, in 1914. After years hanging in America, Lodge’s masterpiece was returned to the UK and in 2019 took pride of place when Shetland Museum staged an exhibition titled The Eagle’s Last Stronghold. The accompanying display named the Rev. Ernest Sorby who “was fined the equivalent of £1,500 today’s money for killing a bird in 1904 in Yell.”

I had just sent off the manuscript of my book Framing Nature – conservation and culture. Chapter One is an account of the long history of our relationship with the greatest of the raptors, its final extirpation and successful restoration. I had triumphantly identified the egg-thief as a different Sorby, John Archibald, onetime vicar of St. Peter’s, Maer, noting that one of his predecessors had married Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgwood there in 1839. I based my accusation on a search of the census records: he was the only Reverend Sorby to hail from Derbyshire at that time.

A letter from the Procurator Fiscal of Shetland regarding the stolen eggs dating back to the early 20th century. © University of Edinburgh Centre for Research Collections (Coll-14/9/10/99).

Delving into the archives
So, was it my Archibald or this new suspect Ernest? Was he an egg-thief in 1910 or an eagle killer in 1904? Or both? I have good reason to re-open the case, now that I am again writing up the story of the White-tailed Eagle’s return. My work is seeking to give credit to the many people involved in recovering the population of White-tailed Eagles and by the same token, I would want to give discredit only where it is due, and not risk besmirching the wrong clergyman.

Another search of the census records reveals a Rev. Albert Ernest Sorby. He had no immediate connection to Derby or Derbyshire, but in 1911 he was living in the Rectory of All Saints Church, Darfield in Yorkshire, on the doorstep of what are today the RSPB’s Dearne Valley reserves, and only a few miles from my home.

Albert Ernest had legal form: he was a key player in the ‘Darfield Judgement’ – named after the mining village where he lived and ministered. In 1906, on Ascension Day, John Marshall stayed away from school to go to church with his father Timothy. The Education Authority called upon Timothy to account for his son’s absence, and the case went all the way to the High Court, Canon Sorby supporting Mr. Marshall throughout the case, and winning.

Two years earlier, though, Sorby had attended court for a different reason. In the same year the RSPB gained its Royal prefix, Bird Notes and News – a Circular Letter issued Periodically by the Society for the Protection of Birds, reported as follows:

IN THE COURTS. The most important case under the Bird Protection Acts heard in the courts recently was that of the Rev. Albert Ernest Sorby, of Darfield Rectory, Yorkshire, who was charged at Lerwick on July 12th, 1904, with taking two eggs of the great skua at Burra Firth, Unst, and one egg of the sea-eagle on the island of Yell. He was fined £3, and the eggs were ordered to be forfeited, and handed over to the Edinburgh Museum.

The fine was the equivalent of about £400 today. According to Pennington, the egg was switched for a Golden Eagle’s before being handed over.

John Archibald Sorby never married, and there are no descendants to receive my apology. As for Albert Ernest, his memory seems to be revered in Darfield, where at All Saints a stained-glass window was commissioned in his honour. His criminal record is never spoken of.

A brighter future
After a couple of false starts, efforts to restore the White-tailed Eagle to the UK’s skies got under way 48 years ago, with the first reintroductions on Rùm, which led to the first successful breeding in 1985, on Mull, under the protective watch of the RSPB. After 38 years – between 1975 and 2012 – of translocations from Norway into three Scottish reception areas, the population stands at around 120-150 pairs. Attention is now focussed on stakeholder engagement in Scotland, where a vociferous minority has been calling for ‘control’, and on reintroduction opportunities in England.

Former RSPB man and recipient of our 2021 Medal Roy Dennis has been involved from the start, and still masterminds new reintroductions through his own charitable foundation. Nowadays, the source population for the latest project, on the Isle of Wight, is Scotland, with RSPB helping identify suitable donor nests. NatureScot and Natural England, the statutory agencies for nature conservation, have been leading efforts alongside the RSPB from the start, since the time of the pre-devolution Nature Conservancy Council.

The UK White-tailed Eagle population now stands at around 120-150 pairs. © Ben Andrew (

Documenting our long-term species work
I’ve been writing about another great RSPB success story – that of the Cirl Bunting. One of these days I’ll tell you about the aristocrat whose philandering led to him discovering the first British Cirls and the apothecary who would have got the credit if he hadn’t misidentified them ten years earlier. The gripping story of brilliant scientific detective work and emergency action to tackle the catastrophic decline of vultures in Asia is keeping me busy, too.

Continue reading
Conservation Action - celebrating our stories in 2022
Crossing borders and continents for conservation – the story of the Egyptian Vulture
Improving the fortunes of species under threat

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