Hunters of the Scottish Skies

Last seen in the British Isles a century ago, white-tailed eagles are now being reintroduced to one of their ancestral homes.

It is June 2012 in a wilderness area near Ålesund, Norway. Summer is quickly changing this cold, rugged place of fjord and glacier into the land of the midnight sun. Forty feet off the ground, Rhian Evans of Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is perched in the branches of a Sitka spruce. She is here to collect white-tailed eagles, one of the largest raptors in the world.

“We collect chicks between six to eight weeks old from the nests,” Evans says. “When I say chicks, they are the size of small children and weigh about 3 kilos [6.6 pounds] each. We operate as quickly as possible to minimize the disturbance to the birds. We take only one chick from a nest of twins or triplets. We always leave at least one so that the nest succeeds and continues.”

Evans works with members of the Norwegian Ornithological Society in gathering the young eagles as part of a project to reintroduce the species to Scotland. It is not an easy endeavor. “When we approach, the chicks are quite feisty,” she says. “They try to make themselves as big as possible by fluffing up their feathers and they hiss and make alarm calls. The calmer you are, the slower you are, the better it is for the chick. It’s an amazing experience.”

Alv Ottar Folkestad, a spry 70-year-old Norwegian who monitors more than 200 white-tailed eagle territories along this fragmented coastline, assists Evans. The two climb inside an enormous eyrie, or nest, the size of a queen-size bed and examine a pair of hissing chicks. The platform-like structure is made of branches up to three inches thick. White-tailed eagles are territorial and often reuse their nests, adding to the structure as years go by. Sometimes the nests are used by successive generations of birds and can get to be as much as 12 feet wide and four feet high.

photo of a flying eaglephoto Patrick Holian

Evans and Folkestad choose a female chick from the brood, carefully place it in a bag, and quickly bring it to the ground. Then the race continues onto the next nest. Evans has just one week to accomplish her goal of capturing 20 chicks. The team works 15 to 20 hours a day, taking advantage of the endless daylight of the Norwegian summer.

For some reason there are few nests with multiple chicks this year, and at the end of a week of collecting Evans has only six chicks to take to Scotland. She’s slightly disappointed. “It’s the last year of the six-year project and I wanted to get 20,” she says. “That would have given us a total of 100 birds for the Scottish east coast reintroduction, but we ended up with 86. Still, I was over the moon finding the last chick. Climbing down the tree with the bird, I realized I had another life in my hands – a life that will help reestablish the species back to where it belongs. It was absolute elation. She’s a little female. There is hope.”

In Scotland, the magnificent raptor that Evans seeks is the stuff of legends and folklore. In Celtic mythology, the eagle is surpassed only by the salmon in age and wisdom. The Gaelic language has several names for the white-tailed eagle – Iolaire mhara or “sea eagle,” Iolaire chladach or “shore eagle,” and the most poetic of all, Iolaire suile na grein or “the eagle with the sunlit eye.” In the Shetland Isles and parts of mainland Scotland, it is still known as the erne from the Anglo-Saxon for “the soarer.” With a wingspan approaching eight feet, a thick beak, and strong yellow talons, this fourth-largest eagle in the world is a formidable hunter. Shetland fishermen once believed that as soon as an erne appeared, fish would rise to the surface, belly up, in submission. Some fishermen even smear eagle fat on their fishing hooks to increase their catch.

White-tailed eagles were once a familiar sight throughout the United Kingdom. Their bones have been found reverently placed alongside human remains in a Neolithic burial chamber called the Tomb of Eagles in the Orkney archipelago in northern Scotland. At the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, 1,000-year-old stone carvings depict sea eagles on the hunt. Depictions of the bird exist in medieval illuminated manuscripts.

By the 1800s, however, attitudes toward the eagles began to change. As human populations increased, white-tailed eagles faced persecution by British shepherds and gamekeepers who considered the raptors a threat to their livestock and game birds. The great birds were systematically hunted and killed. By 1900, only a handful of pairs remained. The last known nesting attempt by the eagles was in Skye in 1916. Two years later, a lone female was shot in Shetland, probably the last of the native wild birds in Britain.

In twentieth-century Europe, the only place white-tailed eagles continued to thrive was in isolated enclaves in Scandinavia, though the global population stretches from Greenland through Siberia and into Northern Asia. Now, because of a herculean conservation effort started by the RSPB in the 1970s, these grand birds are finally returning to the Scottish skies.

Eight weeks after the Norway chick-collecting spree, I am aboard the Lady Jayne, a 33-foot powerboat off the Isle of Mull in western Scotland. It is an unusually sunny August day and the water is calm. We steam past a stunning coastline of towering rock capped by lush, green fields above. Skipper Martin Keivers cuts the engines and Lady Jayne drifts silently in the deep, blue water. I can hear the distant roar of shore-side waterfalls spilling down the cliffs to the Sea of the Hebrides.

The captain grabs a dead, foot-long fish and heaves it overboard. Within a minute, I see my first adult white-tailed eagle. The enormous bird soars high overhead and corkscrews downward in a series of graceful circles. It arrives parallel to the water, thrusts its talons forward and deftly snatches the fish. Just as swiftly, the eagle changes course back toward the coast. “That’s the female!” yells Keivers, who started giving sea eagle tours four years ago. “If you look high on the ridge by those pines, that’s where their nest is. This pair produced two chicks this year. We get to see the family every day.”

Over the next half hour, the captain throws out three more fish. I get to witness both the female and male raptors grab the prize and fly back to their young. The size of the birds is incredible. It is little wonder that locals often refer to them as flying barn doors.

I ask Keivers how business has been. “It has been good for us,” he says. “We get more visitors every year and the eagles have really brought a lot of money to the island. You can get the exact numbers from Dave Sexton.”

photo of an eagle chick poking its head out of a burlap sack, on the shore of a lake near snowy mountains, it is glaring at the cameraphoto Patrick Holian

Sexton, the RSPB officer on the Isle of Mull, concurs. “An independent research company that conducted a study here found that up to £5 million [about $8 million] annually comes to the Mull economy from eagle tourism. It varies from year to year, but that’s money spent in the community – the shops, the petrol stations, the ferry – all of that.”

There are 14 pairs of white-tailed eagles currently nesting on Mull. They represent a quarter of the nesting pairs in the region. Sexton has been with the RSPB since 1984, when he was entrusted with following the first white-tailed eagle nesting pair on Mull. He helped care for the first fledgling that was released into the wild from here. With that background, it is easy to understand his passion. “There’s the spiritual side of it,” he says. “We all feel better when we see an eagle soaring. Watching the young birds up and about, that for me is why I do this job. It is hugely satisfying. They are inspiring.”

But not everyone is enamored with the eagle reintroduction. Sheep farmers especially are unhappy, concerned about predation on their herds. “It is hard enough to farm without having to face losses due to birds of prey,” said an opinion piece in a recent edition of The Scottish Farmer, a venerable weekly newspaper printed since 1893. Tim Barnes, a farmer from Rhemore in the Scottish Highlands, says: “If the average 80 percent lambing is reduced by sea eagle predation, even a relatively small number of lambs lost can push a flock to the tipping point of 70 percent where a spiraling decline in the quality of the ewe flock is reached.”

“I never deny that eagles kill lambs,” Dave Sexton responds, “And [the ones they pick] are not all sickly or undersized. The eagles don’t differentiate. A newly born lamb is easy pickings. All the studies have shown that, generally speaking, the lambs that eagles choose are undersized for their age. But that doesn’t rule out the fact that white-tailed eagles take a few healthy ones as well. These birds are a challenge to live with. Yes, we want them in our lives and the public wants them – surveys have proven that – but it’s not all a bed of roses.”

Still, Sexton remains steadfast about reintroduction. “They should absolutely be here,” he says. “I think we have a duty to restore white-tailed eagles wherever we can. But don’t underestimate the issues that they bring.”

Nobody understands these issues better than Bob Elliot, RSPB’s head of investigations. When I meet him, he quickly lists three main threats facing white-tailed eagles – poisoning, trapping, and shooting. The birds are most vulnerable in eastern Scotland, where game hunting is a long-standing tradition. “Poisoning and trapping are often undertaken by people who are working the land to produce surfaces for grouse. Some of these gamekeepers will do anything to protect their game birds,” Elliott says. “But the job my small team does has a massive impact. We are exposing criminality. I don’t care what level it is. We’re going to go for them.”

Elliot and his investigators work with police to nab those who violate wildlife protection laws. The arduous work involves field surveillance, including videotaping offenders killing wildlife. Poisoning is one of the more hideous methods since it ends up killing other animals. Elliot describes a recent incident where a white-tailed eagle from Mull that had flown to the Scottish mainland died after eating a piece of venison laced with the banned pesticide carbofuran. Several other dead animals were found in the area.

Egg theft is another big problem. People snatch eagle eggs from nests, drill holes in them, empty whatever’s inside, and sell the shells to collectors. “It’s the kind of activity that can tip a species over the edge if the birds are at a very low base level,” Elliot says.

To reduce conflict with local residents, RSPB and other conservation groups have set up programs to help farmers. For instance, the Scottish Natural Heritage, a government-funded nonprofit that works to preserve Scotland’s natural landscape, has introduced a sea eagle management program. Under the scheme, farmers receive grants of up to £1,500 ($2,400) annually to improve newborn lambs’ nutrition so that they grow stronger faster; to construct plastic lambing tunnels that protect young lambs; and to purchase inflatable scarecrows that activate every 30 minutes. On Mull, visitors are charged a fee to view white-tailed eagles from a secluded hide. Fifty percent of the money funds local community projects. These efforts have helped build faith between conservation groups and the Mull community.

Beyond persecution by humans, the eagles face other modern-world threats. Juvenile eagles are known to roam vast distances before settling down to nest. This makes them vulnerable to hazards like power lines or trains. Then there are the natural dangers. Scottish winters can be brutal and a frozen terrain makes hunting for prey difficult. Starvation, especially among the weaker birds, is not uncommon.

Despite these challenges, the east coast white-tailed eagle project has a 70 percent survival rate, which is comparable to other successful species reintroductions. But Elliot warns that things could easily go the other way. “The eagles are very vulnerable to change. If we backslide on these birds, we could lose them again,” he says

I slog up a mud trail between towering pines trees with RSPB’s Rhian Evans and several farmers who welcomed the reintroduction of red kites, another raptor, on their land in southern Scotland a few years ago. They, like myself, are eager to see the white-tailed eagle chicks recently transferred from Norway.

Our group finally makes it to a high ridge in an undisclosed location near Fife where the young birds are housed in a row of stoutly built sheds. The side of the sheds facing us is a blank wall peppered with quarter-inch holes for viewing the chicks and small doors to feed them. The opposite side, covered by a strong wire mesh, offers a panoramic view of the forest. The idea is to ensure that the birds have limited human contact so that they can better adjust to the wild upon release.

Evans and her assistant have been caring for the chicks for nearly two months now, ever since they were plucked from their nests in Norway. They feed each bird a couple of pounds of raw fish, squirrel, and deer meat daily. The chicks have been fitted with VHF transmitters and lettered tags so that they can be tracked.

All six of the Norwegian chicks are going to be released soon. Their flight away from the nesting sheds will mark the end of a reintroduction project that began 38 years ago.

“I always wanted to make a difference for the environment and I feel like now I have,” Evans says. “The difference that we’re making is restoring what should be here, bringing it back to what used to be here and what rightfully should be here. It makes me very proud. We’re returning the balance.”

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