Here Be Giants

The People's Friend Special - - NATURE -

THE an­tic­i­pa­tion builds as the Cal­Mac ferry pushes away from Oban har­bour on a bright spring morn­ing. Black guille­mots and seals bob out of the way as we make the short cross­ing to a very spe­cial place, the mag­i­cal is­land of Mull. Here, there are giants. I’m of­ten drawn to the sea so I feel a great affin­ity with the wa­ter-lov­ing bird I want to find.

It has a few names in the UK: sea ea­gle, white-tailed ea­gle, and cross­word favourite erne.

In the early Mid­dle Ages you’d ac­tu­ally have stood a strong chance of see­ing the white-tailed ea­gle al­most any­where in Bri­tain, sail­ing above on a ther­mal or drift­ing down to ex­pertly pluck fish from the wa­ter with its enor­mous talons.

Many place names, like Arn­cliffe, are trib­utes to the ea­gles that were once there, with vari­a­tions on the name erne, arne or earn. Sadly, most of these now act as memo­ri­als to ea­gle pop­u­la­tions lost long ago, as for a time the birds com­pletely van­ished from our shores.

White-tailed ea­gles van­ished first from south­ern Bri­tain. It’s not known ex­actly how they were driven from here, but it’s likely that one cause was the loss of the tall trees they needed to nest in, as forests were felled.

They have suf­fered per­se­cu­tion, too, with birds killed and eggs col­lected.

The pic­ture is much clearer from 1800 on­wards in the Scot­tish High­lands. Here, there was a switch from small-scale beef cat­tle farm­ing to the graz­ing of large flocks of sheep.

White-tailed ea­gles were in­creas­ingly blamed for the loss of lambs, and as guns be­came more ad­vanced, more birds were shot.

Why were they sin­gled out for this harsh treat­ment? White-tailed ea­gles have a var­ied diet, which changes with lo­ca­tion and sea­son. Fish are the favourite, but they’ll also take birds, mam­mals, rep­tiles and am­phib­ians.

How­ever, car­rion is also an im­por­tant source of food, and the birds will come down to a deer or sheep car­cass. In fact, the ea­gles did a great job at scav­eng­ing and clear­ing up dead an­i­mals in the hills and along the shore.

When seen tak­ing lambs it’s of­ten as­sumed that they have killed the an­i­mal them­selves – which they are ca­pable of do­ing –but it’s more likely that they found it dead or al­ready in­jured by other preda­tors.

This fond­ness for dead meat meant that poi­son de­ployed in sheep car­casses had a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect, killing off large num­bers of ea­gles.

Even­tu­ally, the only bird reg­u­larly seen was a pale, al­most white, ea­gle sit­ting on the cliffs at North Roe, Shet­land. It was shot in 1918 and af­ter that the birds bred here no more.

For­tu­nately, white-tailed ea­gles are found across Europe, Rus­sia and north­ern Asia. Our near­est large pop­u­la­tion is in Nor­way, which has proved very help­ful in plan­ning their re­turn.

An of­fi­cial rein­tro­duc­tion by Scot­tish Nat­u­ral Her­itage be­gan on the Isle of Rum in 1975. This was the first of three waves of re­leas­ing Nor­we­gian ea­gles on Scot­land’s east and west coasts, with the fi­nal re­lease of six ea­gles in Fife in 2012.

The rein­tro­duc­tion of the white-tailed ea­gle to Scot­land has been a big con­ser­va­tion suc­cess.

Back on Mull, I watch as a golden ea­gle soars above, a mas­sive bird.

Then, a minute later, it is joined by a cir­cling pair of white-tailed ea­gles, which com­pletely dwarf it.

I’m blown away by be­ing in their pres­ence, as are the ex­cited group of vis­i­tors be­side me.

It’s a thrill I hope my great-grand­chil­dren will get to en­joy in an­other hun­dred years.

RSPB Pres­i­dent Mi­randa Krestovnikoff cel­e­brates the white-tailed ea­gle’s re­turn to the Bri­tish Isles.

Find out more

Take a cruise with Mull Char­ters: mullchar­

Visit Mull Ea­gle Watch at mul­lea­gle­ and fol­low the ea­gles on Face­book and Twit­ter @Mul­lEa­gle­Watch.

Sail­ing on a ther­mal. Mi­randa is de­lighted with the project’s suc­cess.

This ex­pert fish­er­man plucks its haul from the wa­ter.

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