The proposal to reintroduce (ie put back) white-tailed eagles into East Anglia is stirring up controversy amongst land owners in Suffolk. 

The Country Landowners Association says it has concerns about the impacts of these predatory birds on livestock, game shoots and wildlife.  

There is no doubt that these magnicent birds of prey are predators - that wickedly powerful beak and those strong talons are not the equipment needed by any vegetarian bird.  Eagles eat flesh, often when it is still warm, bloody and freshly killed (or still dying).  What do they eat?  To get an idea we should look at what their diets in other parts of the world where they are much commoner - places like eastern Europe for example. 

White-tailed eagles eat a very large range of species - carrion, plenty of fishbirds and small mammals (here, here, and here, are links to European accounts of the birds and their diets).  It's difficult to find evidence that they cause problems to livestock in any parts of the word where they occur - in fact they seem a bit lazy in their habits!  Fish and birds seem to make up most of their diet in most areas - mammals mentioned are often small mammals or rodents.  So what are the numerous and easy prey available for these magnificent birds in coastal Suffolk?  Rabbits, fish in the estuaries, lots of ducks and no doubt the odd pheasant too.  It couldn't be, could it, that the main worry of many CLA members is whether their pheasant shoots may suffer some losses from eagles?  Wouldn't it be a bit odd if the reintroduction of a native species were put on hold because of worries about its impacts on non-native gamebirds reared to be shot for sport?  Having said that, the impacts would be tiny I think.

If anything, I would have thought that fish farms should worry most about these birds but studies in Estonia suggest that losses of fish to eagles (and osprey) are negligible - in fact any landowner who had white-tailed eagles regularly fishing at a water body they own would be mad not to cash in to the spectacle and make their money from tourists wanting to see the birds!  The Loch Garten ospreys are worth an estimated annual £1.5m to the local economy and they are only present in the summer months and we can't lay on reliable views of them catching fish! 

And what about the impacts on other wildlife?  I have some concerns about them deciding to switch to a diet of avocets, stone curlews and bitterns but then these are the issues that Natural England will have to assess when deciding whether to issue a licence for the reintroduction.  In those parts of the world where white-tailed eagles are common they aren't seen as pests or dangers to native wildlife and that should be a reassuring guide to what they might get up to in East Anglia.  All these matters are being looked at now as part of the consultation and planning process.

The American bald eagle is a close relative of the white-tailed eagle - and of course an iconic US species.  I can't find much evidence of conflicts ( but see here and here) between bald eagles and either wildlife (bald eagles seem to be a bit mean to ospreys sometimes) or economic interests - but I'd be interested to hear of them if there are such instances.  I do remember some years ago lunching in a restaurant with staff from National Audubon Society in New England and seeing bald eagles in the sky above the town - and thinking how great it would be if one could sit outside a pub in East Anglia with a pint of decent beer, a nice meal and watch eagles overhead.  In fact, many people would seek out those pubs, cafes, B&Bs, hotels and holiday cottages which could give them views of eagles withing a couple of hours drive of London throughout the year.

And that may be one of the reasons why the Suffolk Coasts and Heath AONB partnership voted in favour of the reintroduction scheme earlier this month.  Taking a broader perspective of such a charismatic bird this group saw the overall value, both economic and spiritual, of returning eagles to places where they will thrive.  And obscured by the brouhaha stirred up by some landowners is the fact that an as yet unpublished survey of the public apparently shows overshelming support for the restoration of this bird back to coastal Suffolk.

My previous blog was about bird flu - and there is a link!  Fears of mass mortality due to bird flu appear to have been misfounded (but maybe it's too early to say) and led to all sorts of anti-wildlife pronouncements suggesting that wild birds should be culled.  Isn't it odd that we often act as though nature is our enemy?  If we hadn't exterminated white-tailed eagles from England a few centuries ago it is difficult to imagine that the CLA would be campaigning to cull them now - even if they were to eat a few pheasants.  And do CLA members go to Poland and wring their hands at the damage that white-tailed eagles are doing to the local economy there?  Of course not - opposition to eagles in Suffolk is based largely on fear of the unknown, concerns about whether game shoots might be affected, perhaps worries over whether releasing radio-tagged eagles might uncover illegal poisons being used and, I fear, a deep-seated suspicion and fear of the natural world.

Am I completely happy with the idea?  About 90% happy!  The 90% is because restoration of lost species and lost habitats is such a key part of nature conservation that this seems a very logical and positive thing to do, it's a wonderful bird which has been missing for too long and elsewhere in its range is loved and admired rather than demonised.  Why the 10% doubt? Well, there are, I recognise, some real uncertainties about what might happen.  I'm a bit ashamed of the 10% - do those deep-seated fears of wildlife run through my veins too? 

But, cards on the table, taking everything into account, am I in favour of reintroducing white-tailed eagles to East Anglia?  Yes! 

Anonymous
  • mark avery - Over London!!! thats cool

  • I have a lot of doubts about re-introductions of birds and mammals that have been extinct in an area for a very very long time and with a rather dubious historical backing for their presence in far off days. Another doubt of mine is that I love going to various reserves and places particularly to see "their" specialities and if these are then to be found all over the UK, why would I travel? (Apart from the fact that Mull, Wales and Scotland are very special to me!) East Anglia to me seems a rather weird place to want to re-introduce sea eagles; no cliffs, vast tracts of flat land with wonderful light, so no sudden coming round the corner of a mountain into a flight of eagles as on Skye. Cranes, yes, bitterns yes, they seem to fit with the landscape, but on reflection, Sea Eagles, no. If Sea Eagles colonize by themselves, then I will be the first up to protect them. Liz

  • Farmer,it is almost impossible to prove because they definitely take small numbers of lambs but it could easily be that the lambs were stillborn and sheep do not seem alarmed by the Eagles what I have seen.Someone saw one take a young seal to a nest but again it may have been stillborn.However I see your point.

  • Hi Bob, The Galloway Red Kite, is RSPB.

    Do we not think farmers should again be able to leave carcasses for all these birds animals and insects to feed on and restore the ecology in the landscapes of reintroduction sites. Or, is that a whole other can of worms

  • The issue of how you get back control if it goes wrong is a very valid one. If they do end up taking livestock then there are some real economic losses to face, not for the whole farming community, but for those who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. How about a compensation scheme out of Stewardship money if this can be proven. have you asked Natural England?