His Majesty the Golden Ea­gle

The Oban Times - - HERITAGE - IAIN THORNBER [email protected]­in­ter­net.com

Al­bert Ein­stein, in his book, The World as I See It, said: ‘The most beau­ti­ful ex­pe­ri­ence we can have is the mys­te­ri­ous. It is the fun­da­men­tal emo­tion that stands at the cra­dle of true art and true science.’

Nowhere are there more mys­ter­ies to be found than in the nat­u­ral his­tory world. As fine an ex­am­ple as any is why do two species of birds from the same fam­ily choose dif­fer­ent ma­te­rial with which to line the in­ner cup of their nest to lay eggs in?

Al­most al­ways in the west High­lands, golden ea­gles have a marked pref­er­ence for the dried win­ter leaves of the great woodrush (Luzula syl­vat­ica), whereas sea ea­gles, ac­cord­ing to David Sex­ton, the RSPB Scot­land of­fi­cer for the Isle of Mull, and an au­thor­ity on the species, line their nests al­most ex­clu­sively with dead, white pur­ple moor grass (Molinia caerulea) which be­comes a very dis­tinc­tive fea­ture and makes them stand out at a dis­tance es­pe­cially in the sun­shine when it turns pale beige – the same colour as the birds’ heads.

Nei­ther the great woodrush nor the pur­ple moor grass are rare in ea­gle coun­try. The former is the largest woodrush whose name is thought to come from the Ital­ian luc­ci­ola (to shine) or the Latin luzu­lae or lux­u­lae, from lux (light) in­spired by the sparkling ap­pear­ance of the heads of the flow­ers when wet with dew or rain, while syl­vat­ica comes from silva, Latin for for­est.

John Cameron, in his Gaelic Names of Plants, Ed­in­burgh 1883, tells us that Luzula syl­vat­ica is called in Gaelic, Luachar coille, mean­ing the bright grass or rush of the wood, which he de­scribes as a very con­spic­u­ous plant, more of the habit of a grass than a rush, with the stalk ris­ing to more than two feet and bear­ing a ter­mi­nal clus­ter of brown­ish flow­ers, with large light-yel­low an­thers.

It may well grow to that height on shel­tered low ground but wher­ever I have come across it in Morvern, it has been grow­ing on acidic soils in damp shady habi­tants above 1,000 feet and, be­ing ex­posed to the con­stant wind, is much smaller.

So what is it about the great woodrush that is favoured by golden ea­gles when there are so many other al­ter­na­tives, such as the pur­ple moor grass which their cousins, the sea or white-tailed ea­gles, pre­fer? Is it be­cause its leaves, which are re­placed by heather, moss, wool and sticks soon after the young ea­gles hatch, are ex­tra ab­sorbent; is it their scent, or can it be that the birds are feed­ing on the cater­pil­lar of the Coleophora syl­vat­i­cella moth, whose only food source is this plant?

I have of­ten found ring-ouzels, the moun­tain equiv­a­lent of the closely-re­lated com­mon black­bird, nest­ing a few feet be­low oc­cu­pied eyries sug­gest­ing that they may be tak­ing ad­van­tage of scraps from some­thing the ea­gles bring home. As John Muir, the in­flu­en­tial, Scot­tish-Amer­i­can nat­u­ral­ist, au­thor and en­vi­ron­men­tal philoso­pher said: ‘When we try to pick out any­thing by it­self we find it hitched to ev­ery­thing else in the uni­verse.’

In ap­pear­ance, at least, if not in char­ac­ter, the golden ea­gle is the UK’s finest wild crea­ture and well de­serves the age-old ti­tle the ‘King of Birds’.

Its tremen­dous wing­span, of­ten nearer six than five feet, its mas­sive build, the yel­low of the beak and feet and the golden sheen on the wing and nape feath­ers as it wheels and turns in the sun, com­pel our ad­mi­ra­tion.

The sea­sonal clutch con­sists nor­mally of two, oc­ca­sion­ally three, eggs, and if the first are de-

stroyed, oth­ers are not laid. The young are cov­ered with white down, and great care ap­pears to be taken with their food. At first the liver of its vic­tims is of­ten the sole diet of the ea­glets, fol­lowed by por­tions of well-plucked birds, rab­bits, hares, fox cubs or other mam­mals that have been care­fully skinned by the par­ent birds. It is only when the birds are sev­eral weeks old that they are given whole vic­tims to deal with them­selves.

Even be­fore they can fly, they hunch or arch their shoul­ders and spread their wings over a re­cent kill to con­ceal it from oth­ers. This is called mantling – a relic from the days when they lived in flocks like vul­tures and had to de­fend their food.

In Scot­land, es­pe­cially in the High­lands and Is­lands, the golden ea­gle’s pres­ence or ab­sence de­pends on the in­ter­ests of the landown­ers. Where there are too many sheep, ea­gles are un­pop­u­lar and shep­herds would not care if they were ex­tinct, even though it is usu­ally only the small­est, sickly or dead lambs that fall prey to them.

The mir­a­cle of the golden ea­gle is that they ex­ist at all. For years they have been per­se­cuted al­most to ex­tinc­tion. Old records from Skye show that in 1833 no fewer than 25 ea­gles were killed in a sin­gle year by one man. Macleod of Macleod and his prin­ci­pal tenant con­sid­ered ea­gles to be ver­min and paid out five shillings for ev­ery set of talons from a dead one de­liv­ered to them. But when this greedy ea­gle-slayer called Mac­Don­ald, asked for his bounty, Macleod gave him only £1 and of­fered him a place in Glen­dale.

In Suther­land, the per­se­cu­tion was equally hor­ren­dous. Be­tween March 1820 and March 1826, 290 adults and 60 young were killed. De­spite this mas­sive cull, an­other took place be­tween March 1831 and March 1834, when 171 birds with 53 young and eggs were de­stroyed.

So scarce had they be­come that by 1848 John Wool­ley, a no­to­ri­ous English egg-col­lec­tor, found it [the golden ea­gle], ‘verg­ing on ex­tinc­tion due no doubt to the great death dealt among those birds by the game­keep­ers, who were in­sti­gated to de­stroy them by the re­wards of­fered’. No word of his own mis­deeds.

Trap­ping and burn­ing nests ac­counted for many oth­ers. Lit­tle more than a cen­tury ago more than 50 golden ea­gles were killed in six years in Jura and five pairs on Rum.

Hap­pily, the sit­u­a­tion has changed dra­mat­i­cally and to­day’s es­ti­mated 450 breed­ing pairs of golden ea­gles are be­ing guarded by strin­gent leg­is­la­tion and ex­tra spe­cial pro­tec­tion ar­eas through­out north­ern and western Scot­land.

En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Roseanna Cun­ning­ham said it was fit­ting that ad­di­tional steps had been taken to pro­tect what was be­com­ing one of Scot­land’s most iconic species. She added: ‘Peo­ple come here from across the world with the hope of catch­ing just a glimpse of one of these beau­ti­ful birds in their nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment.

‘These new pro­tected ar­eas will mean they can con­tinue to do this for gen­er­a­tions to come. Along with other birds of prey, golden ea­gles can bring ben­e­fits to the lo­cal econ­omy through wildlife watch­ing; a re­cent study by SNH shows that na­ture-based tourism brings at least £1.4 bil­lion a year to the Scot­tish econ­omy, sup­port­ing the equiv­a­lent of 39,000 jobs.’

Pho­to­graph: Iain Thornber

A young golden ea­gle on its nest with a plucked red grouse and a piece of great woodrush.

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