White-tailed eagles spread their wings in 2020 in English reintroduction scheme

Emily Beament, PA Environment Correspondent
·3-min read

The first white-tailed eagles in southern England for centuries have been spreading their wings this year, the team behind a reintroduction project said.

Despite the pandemic, the five-year reintroduction programme – which began with the release of a group of young eagles on the Isle of Wight in 2019 – continued in 2020 with a release of seven new birds.

The project team, led by the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation and Forestry England, has released a gallery of images taken by keen birdwatchers of the progress the birds have been making.

One of the birds sitting in a grain field apparently unnoticed by a nearby walker (Ainsley Bennett/PA)
One of the birds sits in a grain field apparently unnoticed by a walker (Ainsley Bennett/PA)

This spring, eagles released in 2019 started to make their first major exploratory flights, tracked by solar-powered satellite tags and spotted by nature lovers as they ranged as far away as Scotland, Yorkshire and Norfolk.

Their flights took them over populated places, even over central London, giving people living under lockdown a chance to see a long-lost natural sight.

In August, despite restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the team released a further seven birds, after they were flown down from Scotland by pilot Graham Mountford and his daughter Helen.

One of the birds spotted perching on a branch following his first year moult (Nick Edwards/PA)
One bird perches on a branch following his first year moult (Nick Edwards/PA)

White-tailed eagles, nicknamed “flying barn doors” because of their huge 8ft wing spans, are the biggest birds of prey native to the UK.

They went extinct in Britain in the early 20th century as a result of persecution, with the last pair recorded in southern England in 1780.

But they were reintroduced from Norway to Scotland from the 1960s onwards.

The reintroduction project to bring them back to the south coast, where they were once widespread, involves releasing up to 60 birds taken from the wild population in Scotland as youngsters, over five years.

One of the eagles on sea wall watches a seal in the water below
The eagles learn to watch seals and snatch fish pushed to the surface (Ainsley Bennett/PA)

Four of the six released in 2019 survived their first year, and it is expected birds in the project will settle within 30 miles of the release site on the Isle of Wight when they breed at around four to five years old.

Roy Dennis said it had been a “very encouraging year” for the project.

“Two of the older eagles have become expert at catching fish in the estuaries and open seas, while the other two located rabbit warrens for food,” he said.

“One female summered in the Scottish Borders and we were very excited when she flew back to the island to join her partner, as well as meeting the new cohort of seven young eagles released this year.

Two birds playing together in October (Dan Lowth/PA)
Two birds playing together in October (Dan Lowth/PA)

“We’ve been particularly pleased that some people have viewed eagles flying over from their gardens during lockdown and to have received so many enthusiastic and supportive messages.

“The project is still in its infancy but sea eagles have again become part of life in southern England.”

Tim Mackrill, an ornithologist with the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, said the satellite tags had delivered fantastic data including where the birds were ranging, and how much of the time they were on the wing or resting.

“For the first two years, white-tailed eagles are known to wander really widely because they don’t reach breeding age until they are four or five years old.

“The period they are in at the moment is about learning the landscape, and building up their life skills, learning to be a white-tailed eagle.”

One of the eagle is seen with a red kite in Norfolk as the class of 2019 explored England in the summer (Tim Smith/PA)
One of the eagles is seen with a red kite in Norfolk in the summer (Tim Smith/PA)

The return of one of the birds from Scotland to the Isle of Wight is a sign it thinks of the island as home, while another had developed from relying on carrion to catching fish in the Solent, he said.

The team plans to continue releases in the next few years to build up a population on the south coast of six to eight breeding pairs.

The gallery of photographs can be viewed at forestryengland.uk/white-tailed-eagle-project-year-in-pictures-2020