An ea­gle eye on East Anglia

Th­ese for­mi­da­ble preda­tors aren’t wel­come, says Robin Page

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Country -

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.

Beast of Bun­gay? The world’s fourth­largest ea­gle could soon be soar­ing over Suf­folk

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