An eagle eye on East Anglia
These formidable predators aren’t welcome, says Robin Page
Back in 1980, I enjoyed one of my most exciting wildlife experiences. I travelled to the Isle of Rhum where, in addition to seeing millions of midges and my first wild otter, I saw young sea eagles (also called white-tailed eagles) that had been flown to Scotland from Norway as part of a reintroduction programme. The sea eagle had been persecuted to extinction in Britain by 1916, the birds’ taste for young lambs having contributed to their downfall. But, with the right conditions (away from mainland sheep farms), the Nature Conservancy Council felt that a reintroduction could be attempted and each year for several years young birds were flown in by the RAF for release. The intention was to get a population with a wide age range, from young to mature, so that breeding could start and natural losses would be replaced. The project was organised by John Love, a young biologist. Remote Rhum, with its large deer population, was ideal. The experience was made extra special because I not only saw the newly arrived chicks, but also spotted older birds from earlier releases displaying high up in a clear blue sky.
The scheme was well thought out and it worked. The sea eagle is now established in Scotland as a truly wild bird, with 33 breeding pairs this spring, and it has settled into an acceptable niche. There are other British sites, in Cumbria and North Wales, where similar reintroductions could be carried out, although arrangements would have to be made to compensate shepherds for any subsequent loss of lambs.
But, incredibly, Cumbria and Wales are not where Natural England has chosen to carry out a sea eagle project. This new conservation and recreation quango hopes to bring sea eagles to Suffolk, where there are no records of them having bred before, making the scheme an “introduction” rather than a “reintroduction”.
Just as the Rhum scheme was sensible and responsible, so the Suffolk scheme seems to be bizarre and verging on the highly irresponsible. Natural England’s position appears to be based on recreation
rather than conservation, the project written in marketing gobbledegook rather than plain English. Natural England says: “A sea eagle reintroduction project represents a major opportunity for Natural England to lead a high profile ‘flagship species’ project that will highlight the organisation at the forefront of a major biodiversity delivery initiative, delivering benefits to both people and nature.” From this. it seems to me that the profile of Natural England is the driving force behind the scheme, not conservation. It continues in similar fashion: “There is a small risk of conflict with both socioeconomic and natureconservation interests, but
these would be effectively managed by risk assessment and contingency planning, and will be greatly outweighed by the positive impacts of the project. A thoroughly planned and well executed public relations strategy will help to maximise the potential publicity and minimise adverse reactions.” As I understand it, this means that a thoroughly suspect scheme, for which no “environmental impact assessment” has been conducted, will be accompanied by maximum drum banging and green spin.
Some of Britain’s most important seabird and wetland sites are along the East Anglian coast and these could be put at risk by a new predator that has never been resident.
Dr Tom Tew, Natural England’s director of science and evidence, says: “White-tailed eagles are generalist hunters and scavengers that are found in wetlands from Greenland to Iran. They are opportunists and will readily feed on carrion or steal prey from other predators. They feed predominantly on fish and water birds (such as gulls and coot), but can also take rabbits and other animals. The East Anglian coast has the required mix of nesting and hunting habitats with an abundant and varied food supply and we are confident that the released birds will thrive.”
The question Natural England seems not to have addressed is what other East Anglian species could turn up in the “food supply”? In addition to gulls, coots and rabbits, what about tern chicks, avocet chicks, lambs, bitterns and even the odd spoonbill? “We cannot be certain that eagles will never take any rare species,” says Dr Tew. “But we are confident that their presence would not have a damaging impact on any of East Anglia’s rarities.”
The National Trust has tern colonies of international importance along the east coast and has real concerns, not least that it has yet to be consulted by Natural England. Another worry is “coastal squeeze”; at one time displaced birds or disturbed birds could move on to find other sites. Sadly, in East Anglia, this is no longer possible. If an eagle with an eight-foot wing span lands in a tern colony and scoffs the young, the displaced adults would have nowhere to go because of other pressures along the coast, particularly from development and tourism.
Andre Farrar, spokesman for the RSPB, says: “The RSPB would welcome such a spectacular bird, but it is vital that all the pros and cons are studied before any final decision is made.”
John Miles, a freelance naturalist and a former RSPB warden, is more blunt: “The scheme is in the wrong place. It should be in Cumbria, which once held several pairs of sea eagles. East Anglia is totally wrong for this beautiful bird and its introduction could go dreadfully wrong.”
Perhaps Natural England should think again and do more to help the lapwing, a traditional, but disappearing bird whose flightless chicks would also make a good snack for a sea eagle.
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