First white-tailed eagles released on Isle of Wight in reintroduction project

By Emily Beament, PA Environment Correspondent

The first white-tailed eagles to be reintroduced to England have taken to the sky over the Isle of Wight, conservationists have said.

The huge birds of prey, nicknamed “flying barn doors” because of their 8ft (2.4m) wing span, were once widespread across southern Britain until the 18th century, when persecution led to them being wiped out in the region.

Six young birds have been successfully released as part of a five-year programme by Forestry England and the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation to bring the species back to England.

It is the first time the birds have taken to the skies of southern England for 240 years, the experts said.

They were collected under licence from nests in the wild in Scotland, where white tailed eagles were first reintroduced in the 1970s, and taken to the Isle of Wight, where they were fed and monitored before being successfully released.

The Isle of Wight was chosen as a location to reintroduce the birds, also known as sea eagles, as it provides good habitat for the coastal-loving creatures, the experts said.

Areas where cliff edges have slipped will provide quiet refuges, the network of cliffs and woodland will be good places to nest, and the Solent and surrounding estuaries will give them a good supply of fish and water birds to eat.

It is hoped the return of the birds will make a contribution to the local economy as a similar scheme on the Isle of Mull was found to contribute up to £5 million a year from ecotourism.

Reintroductions of white-tailed eagles have faced controversy amid concerns that they could prey on lambs, but experts have said there was no evidence of this being a problem where they live alongside lowland sheep farming in Europe.

Bruce Rothnie, Forestry England’s south district forest management director, said:  “The diversity of our wildlife is under real pressure, with many species now in long-term decline.

“The nation’s forests provide an important habitat for wildlife and are playing a critical role in supporting the successful re-establishment of many lost or threatened species.”

Roy Dennis, founder of the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, said watching the birds take to the skies over 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.”

Tony Juniper, chairman of government conservation agency Natural England, which licensed the reintroduction of the birds to England, 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,” he said.

Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers said: “This release is a great opportunity for the Isle of Wight to expand its eco-tourism market, creating wealth and jobs in the local economy.

“We are committed to being a world-leader in protecting and enhancing biodiversity and nature, to help leave our environment in a better state for future generations.”