Here Be Giants
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: mullcharters.com.
Visit Mull Eagle Watch at mulleaglewatch.com 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.