Yesterday morning I did an interview (just before 9 o'clock)  on the proposed white-tailed eagle reintroduction to Suffolk.  It wasn’t my best interview ever, I thought, but I managed to get a few points across.

There’s no doubt that some of the opposition to the proposed white-tailed eagle reintroduction is orchestrated by those who dislike all raptors.  And I fear that some of it is orchestrated by those who dislike the RSPB and/or Natural England. 

Here are some white-tailed eagle myths:

Myth 1: white-tailed eagles were never present in lowland England or were only present in small numbers thousands of years ago.  Neither is true.  The eminent academic Derek Yalden looked at the evidence (archeological, place names and written accounts) of sea eagles living in lowland England and concluded ‘In combination, there is no doubt that White-tailed Eagles frequented lowland, southern Britain through Roman and Anglo-Saxon times.  Historically, there is no reason to question the propriety of attempting to reintroduce the species to southern England.’.  And we believe that the last English breeding record was on the Isle of Wight in the 1780s.

Myth 2: although white-tailed eagles were present, East Anglia is so different now, with so many more people, that the eagles would not be able to cope these days. I am convinced that this is a myth because white-tailed eagles already live, further east on continental Europe, in many areas with much higher human population densities.  I’m grateful to a Facebook friend for pointing out that these birds can be seen on the outskirts of Hamburg.  And the closely related American bald eagle is a common sight above New England towns and cities. 

Myth 3: East Anglia is the wrong type of habitat completely – these birds belong in places like Mull and Norway.  Although Norway has a large white-tailed eagle population (about a third of the European total) much of the geographic range of the species is in low-lying flat areas with good fish and wetland bird populations.  In Poland, Germany, Romania and Denmark (and elsewhere too) white-tailed eagles are at home in low-lying areas – and in historic times they would have been even more widespread and common.  It's a bit like the red kite - they were, in the UK, restricted to upland Wales after persecution wiped them out in the lowlands but a look across the Channel to Europe showed that they also thrive in lowland areas.

Myth 4: white-tailed eagles would cause problems for other wildlife.  Natural England and the RSPB have considered this!  Where is the evidence that elsewhere in the current range any such problems occur?  Experts elsewhere in Europe are very reassuring on this count.  And is there evidence that the closely-related bald eagle causes wildlife problems?  Please let me know.

Myth 5: white-tailed eagles would cause problems for livestock.  I can imagine that the odd chicken, goose or piglet might be taken but I don't know of such cases.  Is there evidence that such problems occur elsewhere in the range of the species?  I’d be genuinely keen to hear more about this.  But without evidence let's class this as a myth for now.  And I’d like to know how any such losses would compare with the extra tourist income that would accrue to local businesses through eco-tourism? 

There are probably more myths – point them out to me and I’ll keep de-mything on this subject!  Or tell me where the analysis is wrong, with any evidence that exists, and I’ll be happy to correct it.

But there are also some concerns that I feel are much closer to judgement calls:

Judgement call 1: this is a very expensive project. Well it is true that I couldn’t afford to fund it out of my own pocket.  Let’s say that it might cost a total of £500,000 over a five year period (roughly – it could be more or less in my opinion).  This is a lot of money, but there are plenty of people out there who have homes worth around that amount (not me!).  If that were the cost of re-establishing white-tailed eagles in lowland England after an absence of a few centuries then some would call it cheap. And compared with the cost of buying or managing nature reserves (both of which are great things to do of course!), giving advice to farmers, doing research on seabird movements and a whole long list of other projects, then it isn’t remotely in the top league of charitable expenditure.  In any case, there may be donors prepared to cover the project’s costs if it goes ahead.

Judgement call 2white-tailed eagles will get to East Anglia under their own steam, why meddle? It is true that the European population is currently expanding slowly, and there is one (I think still one) pair nesting in the Netherlands now.  So, yes, the white-tailed eagle probably will get here and start breeding under its own steam eventually – maybe from Scotland.  But when?  I can't see it happening in my lifetime even though I hope to have a much longer innings than my present 51 years.  Why not give them a helping hand?  We intervene in many ways in nature conservation – habitat restoration is intervention, agri-environment schemes are intervention, tackling pollution is intervention, reintroduction is intervention too!  We could always wait and hope, but giving a helping hand seems to me to be what nature conservationists should do.

Let’s keep talking about this project, whose demise has been incorrectly reported today (more misinformation!), but let those discussions be of the tenor of those on my previous blog on this subject (29 December) which are well worth reading again.

I’d have to say that unless there is some real evidence why we should fear the impacts of white-tailed eagles on livestock and/or wildlife then it still looks to me, on balance, like a great and positive conservation initiative.  But I’m open to other views – on any basis, but particularly backed up with facts.

Anonymous
  • I have been following the discussion on the proposed White-tailed Eagle re-introduction in Suffolk with more than a little interest.  Although living outside Suffolk now I spent the first 58 years of my life there working as a volunteer and professionally in nature conservation.  During that time I believe I was known as somebody who always appreciated the point of view of landowners and businesses in conservation issues.

    My first reaction is disappointment at the dishonesty of a small number of landowners in their opposition to the project.  They extol the usual ridiculous myths rather than cut to the chase about their real concerns.  For centuries landowners have historically removed or reduced all predators of any significance from our countryside.  This has largely been achieved to protect game and this is still the case.  With conservation measures now being effective in bringing back some of those losses some landowners are unhappy.  They just do not like predators.  They prefer a sterilised countryside with everything working in their favour.

    One of the opposing landowners has a positive history as a member of the Suffolk Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group and has done much good in nature conservation even assisting in the recovery of Marsh Harriers and Bitterns. He frankly should know better than to associate himself with such misinformed opposition.  Another is apparently involved with a charity called Save Our Songbirds.  The latter is a very confusing group giving the impression that they want to protect small birds when in fact, it seems to me, they are only interested in significantly reducing the numbers of birds of prey.  One could have more respect if they called themselves Remove the Raptors.

    So we are dealing with a small number of self interested individuals who ignore the science, who know how to run a farm but show little knowledge of the wildlife surrounding them.  They would be better advised to sit down with Government and conservationists and work out how the project might be managed to minimise the affects on their interests.

    How do we combat this small number of people getting so much exposure in the media?

    People of Suffolk if you are a member of the RSPB, Suffolk Wildlife Trust, Suffolk Ornithologists' Group etc or just keen to see White-tailed Eagles in your county it is time to stand up and be counted.  Come forward and say how much you want White-tailed Eagles as part of your avifauna.  I believe that far more people in Suffolk including landowners would welcome these majestic birds than the tiny fraction in opposition.  However this needs to be demonstrated.

    If those in opposition are prepared to erect signs giving their view than we must provide evidence that more people are in favour of the project.  Maybe this means plastering our cars with stickers or wearing the T-shirt with the alternative positive view.  Come on RSPB you should be able to organise that.

    We need to support the Government - YES THE GOVERNMENT - in their efforts to comply with European Directives and bring back this spectacular bird and other species long absent from the United Kingdom.

    If this project succeeds not only will local people be able to enjoy a truly wonderful bird but local business including farmers and landowners associated with tourism will also greatly benefit.  The opposition are truly a minority and most people in Suffolk will benefit at a time when it is really needed.

    So if you care let your voice be heard - in big numbers

  • Susan - thanks for your comments.

    Richard - welcome!  You have more experience of raptors than most so I take your views very seriously.  Reassuring!

    Phred - welcome to you too!  I think I know your real name (!) and your experience of the situation in North America is very useful.  Thanks for your comments.

    Nightjar - good points!

    Sooty - I think there will be more live prey over winter in Suffolk than in Scotland and so the birds' need for carrion might be less.  But if they need a bit of extra feeding then I'm sure that could be arranged.  And could form a means of moving the birds away from any sensitive areas (if there are any!).

  • Well Mark have to thank you for going through a long list and surely your blog and comments here must go a long way to improving information on this project and surely we are miles away from CLA V RSPB and even people entrenched as for or against as for sure Susan,myself and some others who have reservations certainly not anti raptor.Nice of you to say thanks for comments.

    Only one thing I think I disagree with that is that more carrion in Suffolk in winter than say Mull as when we have spent time admittedly in summer but suspect there would be more carrion in winter we have seen one pair that we could easily see live off of dead sheep for all the time each time 2 weeks,I suspect that in winter on Mull there would be lots of dead sheep and deer but you would find that very easy to check but still feel it would be unfair on the young birds not to feed them especially as it seems they probably worth at least £5,000.Lets face it what a disaster for RSPB and N E to have dead starving Sea Eagles picked up.

    Think if I Was granted one wish or any good from my comments it would be to feed them through the first winter.  

  • I hope the White tailed Eagles come back - and I hope they will help us think a bit more about the habitats we once had, and where they have to live now. Just how limiting is the tiny scale of wilder habitat we can offer them - bearing in mind they've come back on their own to the Oostervardesplassen in Holland a stones throw away as the Eagle flies.

    And how will they fit into the local economy ? Brilliantly, if the Lake District Osprey's are anything to go by, attracting lots of visitors and their money and hugely popular with local tourist businesses (which include, lets not forget, many farmers).

    What livestock exactly are they going to take ? Free range pigs (or piglets) perhaps, but a conservationist suggested to me that there may be more sheep and cattle in East Anglia grazing for conservation than for conventional farming, so arable has most of Suffolk and Norfolk become.

  • As a professional ornithologist, I fully agree with the desire by RSPB to reintroduce White-tailed Eagles. There have been two UK introductions to date, but there is still need for an English one. Like Bald Eagles in North America, they are lowland birds with a liking for areas of wetland. East Anglia would  be an ideal location. There is no evidence that they have adverse effects on tern colonies there. The rapid increase in Bald Eagles (which are very closely related) in North America during the past 30 years has been almost universally welcomed by North Americans.

    The famous Norfolk naturalist of the 16th century Sir Thomas Browne refers to "Fen Eagles" as occurring at that time, so probably they were resident in the Fens at that time, before it was extensively drained. Bones dating to no later than the Roman period have been found there too. Some leading birders in E Anglia have cast doubt on the fact that they were once residents here, but there is very little doubt that they were here.