Roy's blog

Four minutes to get under a table

Four minutes to get under a table – the fears of a 15 year old boy

In the 1950s there was much talk of nuclear war, the awesome terror of hydrogen bombs seemed very real to me and my pals at school . We worried about being annihilated. We were told there would be a 4 minute warning if the Russians attacked. We must rush indoors and hide under a table – would that really have helped! Many children went to sleep with bad dreams.

Now times are even more worrying – climate breakdown, chemical contamination of life on Earth, loss of insects, plastic pollution and over-use of the planet’s ecosystem. Nowadays, news reporting is never ending, unlike those naïve days of my youth, and more and more young people are getting alarmed. They want something done now not tomorrow.

Yesterday morning, I drove home from the Cairngorms and saw three smoke clouds from the burning of grouse moors. To me, that’s now like sticking a knife into a wound. In Scotland, we must ban large scale heather and grassland burning and immediately start a massive regeneration of woodland and scrub over all our barren spaces. Turning a ‘wet desert’ as Fraser Darling said in that nuclear era, into a thriving restored land to capture carbon, influence weather and water, and restore damaged ecosystems. Rewilding on a massive scale – our long-delayed contribution to planet renewal. It should become anti-social to own and maintain degraded land.

Too few, in authority, recognise a threat that is greater than the worries of my youth or are they purposely burying their heads in the sand. Thank goodness young people are protesting for the future of our planet – they need to and they must demand urgent action while there is time. It’s important they do not give up for they are the future and they are unlikely to get much support from many of their elders. I say to them – keep going – insist on change.

The young need to have hope and they must be in charge of their destinies. I support lowering the voting age to 16 years, I would go even younger for it’s their future. I asked my ten year old daughter – she thought to vote at 10 or 12 was too young – ‘they wouldn’t understand’ – come on let’s make it 14 or 15. Because of dangerous times I would also remove the vote at 60 years of age. We had our chance and we failed. Tough measures for tough times.

Area of Ecological Importance

I visited Sutherland today – a chance to look for a pair of sea eagles and to check the spread of the red squirrels we translocated in 2013. But I mainly I drove north to pay a short visit to the Public Inquiry about a golf development proposed on the Coul Links Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) near Dornoch. It is being held in the Carnegie Hall, not the famous one on 7th Avenue New York, but the small one built in Clashmore by the same Andrew Carnegie. I quietly slipped into a seat at the back of the village hall and listened to the proceedings. I wanted to be there to show support for those who are opposed to damaging Coul Links. It brought back memories, from the 1970s onwards, of other inquiries where my RSPB colleagues and I were being questioned by lawyers as we fought to protect a nature site. We won some and lost some, but why are they still being won or lost?

Then our focus was on the protection of birds so there were many people who weren’t impressed by that, for the cry then was ‘do you want birds or jobs’. But now it is a much more important matter – we desperately need these special areas of nature to ensure the future of our earth. Outside the hall, it was like a spring day, rather than the 27th February. My car radio told me these were the hottest days on record in a decade of some of the hottest years on record. Flick the channel and a reporter is talking about the massive declines of insects. On another the Green MP is talking about tomorrow’s debate at Westminster on ‘climate change’ or better stated ‘climate breakdown’.

Coul Links with Loch Fleet is a SSSI as well as being a Ramsar Site and a Special Protection Area. There are just over 1400 SSSIs in Scotland covering just under 13% of our country, so why are we putting any of them at risk at a time of great risk to the future of our grandchildren. Some world visionaries believe that to ensure long-term survival of the earth’s ecosystems we will need to have 50% of the earth’s land and seas dedicated to nature and natural processes. I am a firm believer of that target. We cannot lose any more nature sites and the huge areas of land degraded by fire and livestock require to be ecologically restored. Ecological restoration on a large enough scale to attempt to ameliorate the increasing levels of carbon and to restore earth’s ecological processes will be job creation on a truly massive scale. It will require bold far-seeing political leaders and the diversion of major funding from other budgets. It is no longer a choice. As I listened to this morning’s evidence, expert against QC, I also thought that the term SSSI is now antiquated and does not command public respect. They need rebranding in today’s perilous times – may be something like – Areas of Ecological Importance.

 

Three cheers for beavers

I’ve just heard that the beaver is to be protected in our country. That’s welcome news from the Minister, but oh dear how long that took. And that’s only a first step, the next is to return the species to all suitable wetlands, to aid the future of our planet. A week ago young people were reminding us adults that the future of a living earth is in serious danger, yet how quickly that goes off the headlines. The young will need to be more demanding to secure their future. It is an unrelenting struggle to effect meaningful change. Many ecologists have tried over the last century but after an initial breakthrough the old ways of politics and power continue. So this time, young people, keep pushing! The beaver should encourage you to note that yesterday’s total opposition can change to a recognition of its value.

Last summer, I wrote that I visited an osprey nest in Strathspey and ringed the single chick, the first young there after a gap of eight years. The eyrie is atop an ancient Scots pine growing in a bog. I remembered on earlier visits having to jump ditches and wade through swampy areas to reach the tree, but now everywhere is dry and the patches of open water I remembered have all vegetated over. This was such a special forest bog where the ospreys had as neighbours nesting teal and very rare green sandpipers. This forest has every sort of conservation designation possible but it has lost a lot of its value through the uncontrolled growth of excess vegetation, due to lack of big herbivores, originally auroch, moose and beaver. It was clear to me that the immediate remedy for such a special area would be the return of beavers. In a few years their activities would bring those forest bogs and pools back to life, as well as opening up and rewetting the other low-lying parts of the forest. They would slow down the small river and create even more wetlands. I firmly believe that the Scottish government’s refusal to allow beavers back in all these wet woodlands is seriously detrimental to wildlife conservation and our international obligations.

Earlier in the year I was asked to address the annual conference of Forestry Commission England at the University of Exeter and give my views on where they should be heading ecologically after their centenary year of 2019. One of the delegates was Dr Richard Brazier, of the university, whose team had carried out detailed scientific studies on beavers which had been placed in a wet woodland reserve in north Devon. Their results were very impressive and showed how the beavers had changed the ecosystem by building a chain of dams that slowed down the small river coming from the adjacent farmland. Water flows had been ameliorated as water was held in the dams, sediments and chemicals had been deposited within the site. The water coming out of the wood was much purified and the wildlife benefits for other species outstanding. In fact, the 14 dams held 1,000 cubic metres of water and had captured 100 tons of silt. I remember walking there nearly ten years before with Derek Gow, who is the pioneer and champion of the return of the beaver to the UK as a water engineer and ecological improver. Just about everything we talked about then has been proved by these studies and others.

Similar results have been obtained by PhD researchers on beavers and their impacts in the River Tay catchment in Scotland, yet we are still experiencing resistance to the return of the species to the UK. It saddens me greatly that board members and staff of the then newly created Scottish Natural Heritage discussed the need to reintroduce the beaver in the early 1990s and here we are, 25 years later, still dithering about full-scale recovery. Then, our interest was very much about the ecological and wildlife benefits they would bring. Now, though, with an ever-increasing recognition that we must restore natural processes for the benefit of people as well as wildlife, we have the evidence that beavers can help alleviate downstream flooding, maintain water in streams in times of drought, slow down the run-off loss of soils and help prevent agricultural chemicals from pouring down rivers and into lochs, estuaries and the sea. You would think it’s a no-brainer. Sadly, that’s not how it works at present, but it has to change. That’s another area where our young people  can encourage adults to see sense before it’s too late.

Photo by Laurie Campbell

 

Red Kites

In a few weeks the red kites will be soaring above their nesting sites, nowadays throughout Scotland and England, yet 30 years go before reintroduction the only ones were in Wales.

Today I came across this link to a specially commissioned engraving by Alison Kinnaird in 2003 for the National Gallery of Scotland of the kite story.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/76227/roy-dennis-born-1940

Altruism and profligacy

The jays are flying high again and that’s because it’s October. For the rest of the year they rather skulk around the woods yet you know they are there from their raucous calls. But now the oak trees are full of ripe acorns and that’s what the jays are harvesting. For some reason after they have stuffed four or five acorns into their gullets and they’ve got the last one gripped in their bills they leave the trees and fly high across the countryside instead of low into woods. I saw them yesterday morning when I was out for a walk and they were taking the acorns about three quarters of a mile to a scraggy area of small trees and grassland. This is where they must have been burying the future food supplies. But why do they fly so high, it cannot be that they want to know where they’re going, but I wonder if it’s to avoid predators. Jays feature regularly in the diet of goshawks living in the forests.

What that flight does do is to announce that the acorn harvest is underway. Jays collect prodigious amounts of acorns and spread them over such large areas of the countryside. Several thousands per individual and up to a mile or more away from the harvested tree. Of course most of the acorns are eaten, not necessarily all by jays but also by small rodents, but sufficient remain to allow new oak trees to grow in new places. The jays often hide them in bramble patches and  places with cover and that’s exactly where young oak trees prefer to grow because they get an early break from being browsed down. Jays only reached the North of Scotland thirty years or so ago and evidence of them moving oaks, and in a few places sweet chestnut, is really noticeable. As they fly day by day through the acorn season, the jays work hard in what is really a true act of altruism. Of course for their species planting acorns ensures that there are more oak trees in the future, but they, as individuals, are not going to benefit. But future jays will and so will an incredible number of species that benefit from the growth of oak trees. Even we do in many ways including the photosynthesis ability of oak trees to take in carbon and release oxygen.

As the jays start their autumn harvest, the red squirrels are finishing theirs. They have been so busy through September gathering hazelnuts from the grooves of hazel trees that grow along the bank below my house. They come from the pinewood about 100 yards across the road but there must be others as well from further afield that know that September is the month to gather nuts. Some days as I sit at my desk I watch them scurry back and for. They come round house, run across the lawn, climb up over my woodpile, through the lilac hedge and into the first hazel tree. I can see them clambering around in the upper branches and then in no time they return over the woodpile and across the lawn with a mouthful of hazelnuts. Usually they head off for the pinewood to store their haul of nuts in secret places.

But other days they just potter around on the lawn, choose places that seem to have no merit, then a quick little dig, a nut is pushed into the hole and the grass quickly patted down. Then onto the next. Some days they bury dozens. I never know how they find them again, but they certainly don’t find them all because young hazel trees are always popping up in unexpected places in the garden. And in many places in the surrounding land. The red squirrel is just such a great creator of new hazel trees, and another example in my view of altruism towards future squirrels, but how wildlife and we appreciate hazel thickets. When I was young I remember us, boys, searching for really good hazel sticks to make bows or catapults; while older people in the farming districts did an annual harvest of hazel wands to season for walking sticks and handles for various farm implements.

Last week while I was watching the first of the jays and the last of the squirrels carrying out their annual harvests, I listened with incredulity to a news report on the radio that a bottle of whisky had been sold at auction in Edinburgh for £840,750! I suppose my first question was why – the purchaser is not even going to drink it. My second thought was what a weird world we live in. Such a huge amount of money for an item of no true worth at a time when our planet needs every effort to prevent climate breakdown. That will require massive funds being redirected to conserve and restore planet Earth rather than profligate spending on luxury non-essentials of all kinds. I gather the whisky, which was specially bottled in 1986, had been made in Speyside in 1926. Then, at least, it would have been truly organic, the barley would most likely been grown on a mixed farm, with cattle, sheep and poultry, and horses to draw the plough and do the work on the farm. The rotational crops would have included barley, oats, turnips, potatoes and grass fields for making hay and for grazing. Annually, the fertile soils would have received farm manure and lime. Now those same fields that supply barley, for ever-increasing whisky production, are deep ploughed and instead of organic dung the crops grow due to copious supplies of artificial fertiliser and chemicals. Surely it’s essential we think more seriously about the future for most of present farming systems do not have long-term sustainability unlike the altruistic activities of the red squirrel and the jay.

33-year-old Golden Eagle – longest recorded ringed golden eagle in the world.

Way back in 1985, my diary for 30th June records that I was monitoring golden eagles in the north Inverness glens with my daughter Rona, home from Uni. We climbed to an eyrie near Cannich, which I had monitored for many years, and ringed a single eaglet – ZZ0005. I also attached two small yellow wing tags but the eagle was never identified alive. In fact like most ringed eagles nothing more was heard of it – until out-of-the-blue, I received two emails yesterday. One was from the BTO ringing scheme and the other from Gabriela Peniche, a PhD researcher on golden eagle health at the Dick Vet at Edinburgh University.

The remains of this eagle had been found near Loch Assynt in Sutherland on the 10th August and sent to the lab. It was thought it may have been dead for about 6 weeks and a male. The cause of death was unknown, but there was bruising in the skull and a suggestion of starvation. This is a ‘safe’ area for eagles, free from illegal persecution. My view is that a likely end to a very old breeding adult, of either sex, is to be defeated or killed during a challenge by a young adult to take over a nesting site. That’s how nature works for long-lived raptors.

The BTO Ringing Scheme longevity data gives the present longest recorded life of a ringed golden eagle as just over 16 years – a Kielder Forest chick 29th June 1991 found dead in the Scottish Borders 7th August 2007. In some ways this bird’s death stimulated the South of Scotland Golden Eagle recovery project started this year. In Europe, the Euring database records longevity records for two Swedish ringed golden eagles at 31 years and 32 years, while 23 years is the oldest record in the United States. So ZZ0005 at 33 years appears to be the oldest recorded ringed golden eagle in the wild in the world. There is a record of a captive one reaching 46 years, while very expert fieldwork on breeding pairs of golden eagles on the Isle of Skye by my old friends Kate Nellist and Ken Crane gave an annual adult survival rate of 97.5% suggesting that some adults could reach 40 years of age.

From its recovery location, it may have been the local breeding adult male living in a home-range some 90 kilometres north of its natal site. I know those local eyries from my eagle fieldwork in the 1970s and 1980s. By 2010 Doug Mainland had ringed 18 young at this location since 1990 (when ZZ0005 was five years old). On 17th June 2010 I visited the eyrie with Doug, Derek Spencer and Lorcan O’Toole, who collected one young for the Irish Reintroduction Project. The other eaglet, a male, was satellite tagged and named Suilven: to read more click here. There’s just a chance that ZZ0005 may have been its male parent. This eaglet ranged widely when young, even briefly visiting Skye but when sub-adult returned to an area just east of its natal nest. In the spring of 2015, when Suilven was 5 years old the transmitter fell off (as they are meant to do) and we guess he may still live and breed in that area of Sutherland. It’s lovely to think what a couple of emails can do and how worthwhile was that hike up the mountain in 1985. Bird ringing at its best.

Poole Harbour translocation – year two

Our planning and preparation for the second year of Poole Harbour Osprey Project, a partnership between the Foundation, Birds of Poole Harbour and Wildlife Windows, started at the end of winter when we checked nests that looked fragile the previous year, and others that had been damaged by winter storms. In early March 2018 we rebuilt two that were no longer usable and it was pleasing that both were subsequently used by ospreys on their return. In April we started our regular monitoring of about 50 sites in Moray, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey, and in northern Sutherland and Caithness. This year more than usual of the adult birds were either late or missing, almost certainly due to bad weather in Morocco and Iberia during migration.

Two nests were interfered with by pine martens taking them over in winter, with one of them becoming the den for young martens. Those that did breed had a good season because of the excellent weather, but this year there was a marked contrast between the normal broods and very late chicks due to the delay or loss of breeding adults. In late June our monitoring is aimed at identifying which nests have young, how many and what age. Last summer was the first year of the Poole Harbour translocation and so we only collected eight young to get the project started. 2017 was also the last year of the five-year project to reintroduce ospreys to the Basque Country of Spain and we were delighted this spring that two of the males had attracted females which laid eggs. One failed during incubation but the other pair have young close to fledging.

Checking and ringing a brood of three young ospreys. One of this brood was subsequently translocated to Poole (photo Emily Joáchim)

Two young Ospreys ready for translocation to Poole. The birds are moved when they are five-six weeks old.

Our licence from Scottish Natural Heritage allowed us to collect up to 14 chicks this year, and so the next task was to  plan how and when to collect them from nests containing two or three young throughout our study area, liaising with owners of private land holding osprey nests or on Forestry Commission forests. Our team includes two expert tree climbers, Ian and Fraser, while Emily Joáchim again took on the feeding of the young in special pens at my home. The chicks are fed fresh trout from Rothiemurchus Fishery. We aim to collect the birds in as short a time as possible, but our first nest was a disappointment as it contained only one young. Thankfully Monday and Tuesday 9th – 10th July turned out to be excellent days, with great help in particular from Alan Campbell of the Moray district of the Forestry Commission on Monday. By Tuesday lunchtime we had reached our total, with all chicks in excellent condition. This summer Brittany Maxted came north from Poole to learn this end of the project, and on Tuesday evening Tim drove the young ospreys south in special travelling boxes to a stop-over with Barry Dore and Jakkie Tunnicliffe in Staffordshire, where Brittany and Tim fed the chicks fresh trout for the next stage of the journey.

With temperatures in southern England soaring, Tim and Brittany set-off on the final leg to Poole early on Wednesday morning to avoid the worst of the heat. Thankfully the roads were clear and they arrived at the release pens on private land adjacent to Poole Harbour shortly before 1 pm. Jason Fathers of Wildlife Windows had been busy constructing two new release pens to go with the three that we used last year, and we had already decided on the allocation for each pen, with the birds divided into groups of two or three of similar age according to wing length. The largest birds with the longest wings were places in pen 1 and the smallest in pen 5. This should ensure that we can release the birds in stages in a few weeks’ time according to when they are ready.

Having placed the birds in the relevant pens the team retreated to the monitoring caravan where Brittany and the group of volunteers monitor the birds via CCTV images. We were pleased that within a few hours all had fed on fresh fish kindly provided by local distributor Sea Fresh, and were settling in well. In fact the oldest two birds, 013 and 014 were already wing flapping strongly.

Paul Morton feeding the birds. Fish is placed into the pens through a flap at the rear in order to minimise human contact.

Over the past few days the birds have continued to be fed three times per day by the team. Fresh fish is cut up into thumbnail sized pieces and then placed on a paper plate that is passed through a hatch in the rear of each pen. This ensures that the birds are well fed prior to release, but that human contact is kept to an absolute minimum.

All being well the first birds will be ready to be released in about two weeks’ time and in the intervening period they will continue to be monitored closely.

We’re delighted that the second year of this exciting project to restore Ospreys to their former haunts on the South Coast of England is underway.

For the most recent updates on the Poole Harbour Osprey Project, please check out the Birds of Poole Habour website.

CCTV images from each pen allow the development of each bird to be carefully monitored (photo by Paul Morton)

The Deaf Birder’s Bird and the elusive Lynx

At dawn today it was snowing in the garden, and by the time I was ready to go for my morning walk nearly an inch of snow lay on the ground. I love walking in fresh snow as it gives me a chance to find out what unseen creatures are around. When I reached the edge of a nearby plantation, I could see that a young roe deer had crossed my path only minutes before, leaving a trail of black slots. Further up the track were the distinctive prints of a brown hare, louping up the road. On my return there was nothing new except dozens of tracks, etched in the snow, of a bird more usually obvious at dusk than at dawn. Last week, my wife and I walked this our favourite route just before sunset as dozens and dozens of pheasants were settling in the trees for their night roosts. The winter sun now sets in the southwest and the birds in the leafless birches were outlined against a golden sunset. As we walked, some burst from the branches, others crowed loudly.

Nowadays, the ‘Deaf Birder’s Bird’, as Moira calls them – knowing that I now find it hard to hear the high-pitched calls of small passerines – is the commonest bird in our immediate vicinity, as thousands are reared for hunting. I could try closing my eyes and imagining that the sounds were in fact coming from great trees on beautiful mountain slopes in their native lands of Asia. This morning, though, I reflected on which prints, instead of theirs, I would really like to have seen crossing my morning path. That memory jog always takes me back to the mountain forests of Transylvania, where several times I have followed the tracks of brown bear and wolf, as well as the animal which, in that moment, I realised I would most like to see making tracks in the Scottish snows again: the Lynx. Many of us have talked for years about its reintroduction, ecologically simple but politically, it seems, impossible. We have to be fairer to nature, though: if we can host millions of pheasants, surely we can restore the long-lost lynx? So let’s get on with it and again allow us all the thrill of seeing those exciting paw prints padding along snowy forest tracks in Scotland.

Thanks to Stephane Regazzoni – trail camera shot French Jura

Insect Armageddon

Last evening at home I had a phone call from LBC radio station in London. Sophie asked if I would talk with Clive Bull about the ‘Insect Armageddon’ trending the news yesterday. Why me? – I guessed at this hour I could be found on a phone. Fortunately I had looked at the report by scientists on the 76% reduction in flying insect biomass in 27 years up to 2016 on 63 German nature reserves, so I did know the story – see in the journal Plos One. I also felt strongly connected to this news as I am old enough to remember car trips to the New Forest in the late 1950s when after 20 miles you’d have to scrape the windscreen clear of dead insects and from time to time clear the radiator grill. And that was also true in the Scottish Highlands in the 1960s. Just imagine what the reduction of flying insects really has been in the UK if you used 1950 or 1960 as the baseline not 1989. It’s truly disastrous.

Ornithologists are used to the severity of the declines – 97% of turtle doves gone since 1970. When I heard some singing in Andalusia this past April it reminded me of my childhood in rural Hampshire – what a loss to our enjoyment of the countryside to lose that gentle purring in the hawthorn hedges. Then don’t get me started but look at the appalling loss of grey partridges, corn buntings, yellowhammers, poppies, corn cockles and marigolds to the chemicalisation and intensification of agriculture since the 1960s. To understand these dramatic changes you must read Ian Newtown’s new book ‘Farming and Birds’ in the New Naturalist series. I’m two-thirds of the way through – it’s a brilliant read and a weighty tome (it’s also too heavy to read in bed!) which explores the whole history of farming and birds – the relationships good and bad – but details fully the dramatic changes due to the intensification of farming, the onslaught of a bewildering array of chemicals – insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, artificial fertilisers and the loss of wild plants, insects and soil ecosystems. Although individual chemicals are tested for impacts – the real problem is the cocktail of chemicals from intensive agriculture added to emissions from industry and the way we live, including acid rain.

It shocks me that scientific reports continually document the impacts on wildlife and the threat to future global ecosystems yet society seems unable to rein back the worst aspects of intensive agriculture. When I started working with wildlife in the early 1960s the immediate worry was the rapid declines of raptors such as peregrines and golden eagles. Scientists soon proved this was due to new chemicals used in sheep dips and agriculture. The conservation bodies, government and NGOs, demanded changes and within a reasonable time the offending chemicals were taken out of use, and the problems subsided. Why are demands for change not met nowadays – are the bodies less able or organised, are the politicians more negligent or are the chemical companies and the farming industry much stronger?

My very strong view is that we need immediate change not more research – governments and big business love research it means they don’t have to do anything NOW. And nature if given a chance can bounce back, even on farmland, as I saw when I again revisited Knepp Estate in Sussex. There 3500 acres of farmland were turned over to rewilding some 16 years ago and the return of nature has been fantastic – even turtle doves and nightingales, purple emperor butterflies and a childhood delight grasshoppers exploding as we walked through the long vegetation. My view is that for the sake of future generations and the planet we need to do that on a very big scale – not a field on a farm or a farm here and there, but big places – the South Downs, Salisbury Plain and other big ecosystems where nature takes precedence. In my mind, 40% seems about what is needed but a big hot potato to weigh up Society’s and the Earth’s long term needs against individual farming rights. But it has to be done.

Sea eagles on Sunday!

My friend Mike Crutch of A9 Birds invited me to join him and two Inverness birders, Sam and Debbie, on a day trip to Skye to photograph sea eagles. Although I have been involved in the reintroduction and conservation of white-tailed eagles since 1968 in Fair Isle, I’d never been on one of the amazing boat trips to feed them. I had seen loads of incredible photographs back to the earliest days of the 1990s off Portree.

Weather forecasts were poor in August until Steve Hooper of Wild Skye Bird Trips phoned Mike to say there’s a brief calm period on Sunday. As we drove through the Ross-shire mountains it was looking good and our arrival at Carbost pier revealed a calm sea. Soon the MV Wild Skye was heading through Loch Harport, with a distant view of a sea eagle, before passing the lighthouse and aiming for a section of the great western cliffs of the Isle of Skye. A perfect morning – we could see the hills of the Uists away over The Minch and two porpoises broke the glassy surface.

We headed to the main cliffs where very quickly we found the pair of sea eagles and their exceptional brood of three flying young. This pair of eagles, like many others around the coasts, learnt early on that fishing boats are good for scraps of fish. This was taken up by tourist boats giving people incredible views of these great birds and excellent opportunities for photography.

The boat engine was cut and we could hear the young eagles calling. The adults were looking down from the cliffs as they knew full well what happens next – Steve throws a dead fish well away from boat. “Here he comes” as the male plunged from the cliffs and in a sweep of huge wings grabbed the food from the water to the noise of camera shutters. What a fantastic sight – something I never foresaw when I released those first four young Norwegian sea eagles on Fair Isle in 1968. Close up sea eagle viewing has become one of the most exciting wildlife experiences in modern day Scotland.

In a sweep of huge wings the adult sea eagle grabbed the fish from the water (photo by Roy Dennis)

Listening to Steve’s enthusiasm for the sea eagles I thought of another era at this very same cliff. There were no sea eagles when I first visited Skye in the early 1960s but I knew of their sad history as I’d often read Harvie Brown’s county faunas written at the end of the 19th century. He detailed the sad history of persecution and extinction, as well as individual visits, such as the Victorian collector on 20th April 1868 to this very cliff, who took two eggs and shot an adult. As one of the adults circled out to sea to take a fish from the water with a backdrop of the dramatic sea stacks called Macleod’s Maidens, I thought how times have changed. There are now over a hundred pairs of white-tailed sea eagles in Scotland; they are admired and enjoyed by thousands of people, locals and visitors, and contribute remarkably to jobs and incomes in fragile rural communities.