White-tailed Eagle Project – Frequently Asked Questions

What are White-tailed Eagles?

The White-tailed Eagle, or Sea Eagle, is Britain’s largest bird of prey with an eight foot wingspan. Adults are predominantly brown, with a white head and tail. In flight it has long, broad wings and a short wedge-shaped tail.

What is the English White-tailed Eagle reintroduction project?

The project aims to restore a population of White-tailed Eagles to the Isle of Wight and nearby parts of southern England. This will involve the release of young White-tailed Eagles from Scotland at a confidential site on the Isle of Wight. The released birds will regard the area as home, and remain to breed in future years. White-tailed Eagles have been successfully reintroduced to both Scotland and Ireland and we would use the same long-established methods on the Isle of Wight.

Are white tailed eagles native to the UK and England?

The White-tailed Eagle was formerly widespread across southern Britain before suffering intense persecution during the Middle Ages, which led to its eventual extinction as a breeding species by the early nineteenth century. The population in the United Kingdom was estimated to be as high as 1000-1400 pairs in 500 CE, with breeding pairs located throughout southern England. An analysis of place names interpreted as indicating the presence of White-tailed Eagles indicates that the species likely bred across the whole of the south coast, from Cornwall to Kent. The last known pair bred on Culver Cliff on the Isle of Wight in 1780.

White-tailed Eagles were once widespread across the whole of the UK (photo by Mike Crutch)

Why are you doing it?

White-tailed Eagles used to be found across the UK but are now one of our rarest species and a conservation priority. They are a missing part of England’s native biodiversity and were lost entirely through human activities, particularly intense persecution.

White-tailed Eagles are an important flagship species in coastal ecosystems and we can use them to highlight the conservation of these special places. In addition evidence from Scotland shows that eagle tourism is extremely popular and could be of great benefit to the Isle of Wight economy, including in winter.

Why not wait for them to re-colonise naturally?

White-tailed Eagles do not breed until they are 5-6 years old and have low breeding success. In addition most prefer to breed with or near established pairs. This means that population increase and range expansion are very slow. Eagles could take decades, if not hundreds of years, to recolonise southern England naturally, but a reintroduction project would significantly speed up this process.

Why is the Isle of Wight a good place for the recovery of this species?

Many parts of southern England are capable of supporting breeding White-tailed Eagles, but the Isle of Wight was considered the most suitable location for a release. It is the last known breeding site of the species in southern England, is located close to highly suitable foraging areas in the Solent and surrounding estuaries, has numerous potential nesting sites in woods and cliffs, and good loafing areas for immature birds. Furthermore tourism makes a significant contribution to the Isle of Wight’s economy and the White-tailed Eagles will add further interest throughout the year, including in winter. Suitable release sites have been identified on Forestry Commission land.

Who is running the project?

The proposed project is a partnership between the Forestry Commission and the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation with additional support from conservation organisations and others based on the island. Roy Dennis, who was born in the New Forest and knew the Isle of Wight when a teenager, has been instrumental in the recovery of White-tailed Eagles in Scotland and has extensive experience of the techniques that will be used. The intention is to release the birds on Forestry Commission land.

When is the project happening?

The earliest potential start date is summer 2019. The birds will not be reintroduced without the necessary licences and permissions. A key element of the project is to consult local communities, landowners and other stakeholders to encourage support and involvement with the project and to identify and resolve any concerns. If the project is give the go-ahead a maximum of 10-12 young eagles would be released each year for a period of five years, although a smaller number would likely be translocated in the first year.

Juvenile White-tailed Eagles lack the white on the head and tail of adults (photo by Mike Crutch)

Where do the birds come from for the release programme?

The birds will be collected under licence from nests in Western Scotland where the population now stands at approximately 130 breeding pairs. A single chick will be taken from a brood of two.

Who agrees if the project can go ahead?

The project requires a special licence from Scottish Natural Heritage to collect eagle chicks from Scottish nests, and permission from Natural England to release them on the Isle of Wight. We need to demonstrate local support for the project in order for it to go ahead.

What is the process for getting permission to release these birds?

A feasibility report will be submitted to both Scottish Natural Heritage and Natural England as part of the licence application. This will outline the scientific and conservation rationale for the project, and the results of the public consultation.

How much would it cost to run this release programme?

The project is estimated to cost approximately £250,000 over five years, plus the cost of appropriate satellite tracking equipment. Funding will be sought from a range of different sources, including private individuals.

Why do you want to help this species and not other species already under threat on the Island?

The White-tailed Eagle is a flagship species for wetland and coastal conservation. Restoring a population of these spectacular birds to the Isle of Wight and surrounding area will raise the profile of conservation among the general public and help to highlight important conservation issues affecting wetland, estuarine and coastal habitats and the species they support. As such it will benefit a range of other species both directly and indirectly. Furthermore funding for the project will be sought from a range of different sources that will not conflict with existing or planned projects in the area. There is a huge amount of fantastic conservation work being undertaken on the island that is helping a range of different habitats and species.

What number of birds will survive and eventually breed on the Isle of Wight?

We would aim to release a total of 60 birds, over a five year period. In Ireland 85% of juvenile birds survived their first year and annual survival was 90% thereafter. If the project were to commence in 2019, the first breeding is expected in 2024. It is hoped that an initial population of 6-8 pairs will become established on the Isle of Wight and surrounding area, with birds spreading east and west along the South Coast thereafter.

Once a small population of White-tailed Eagles is established on the Isle of Wight and in the Solent, the birds will spread east and west along the coast (photo by Mike Crutch)

When will the first bird be released?

If all the necessary permissions are in place, the first birds will be released in late July 2019.

How do you keep the birds on the Island after you release them from the cages?

The birds will be provided carrion, (birds and fish and small mammals) at a feeding site close to the cages on a daily basis after release. This will continue throughout their first winter to encourage them to remain on the island.

How would you keep track of the birds?

The birds would be fitted with satellite-tags and wing-tags prior to release. This will enable their movements to be tracked remotely and to help us recognise individuals more easily. This data will be made publically available on a website.

What is the size of their territories? How far would a bird travel?

Young White-tailed Eagles wander widely before they settle to breed. For example in recent years birds thought to be from the expanding White-tailed Eagle populations in the Baltic have been seen in Hampshire and elsewhere along the South Coast. Once they begin breeding adult birds have a much smaller home range, and are likely to remain sedentary throughout the year. Having been released on the Isle of Wight the young eagles will regard this as home, and eventually settle to breed on the island or nearby, even if they do wander widely in the first two-three years after release.

Can I expect to see the birds?

Although the release site will be confidential, the eagles will begin to disperse around the island and into the Solent within a month of release, and should become a regular sight thereafter. Designated feeding sites will be set-up to encourage the birds to remain in the area during their first winter.

Where can I go to see the birds?

Some eagle feeding sites with good access will have public viewing areas to allow local people and tourists alike to observe the birds. Once they begin breeding watch points will be established near easily viewable nests with good public access. Other sites in more sensitive areas will be kept strictly confidential in order to protect the birds and to ensure present land use and island life is not disrupted by the additional footfall.

Will the project benefit the local economy?

In Scotland eagle tourism is extremely popular and recent RSPB commissioned reports have shown White-tailed Eagles generate up to £5 million to the economy of the Isle of Mull each year, and £2.4 to the Isle of Skye. It is clear therefore that White-tailed Eagles would give a considerable boost to tourism on the Isle of Wight, including in winter when it is generally more difficult to attract visitors.

White-tailed Eagles are vital to the economy of the islands of Mull and Skye in western Scotland (photo by Roy Dennis)

Do white tailed eagles need cliffs for nesting?

No. Although White-tailed Eagles do nest on cliffs, they will also breed in tall mature trees.

What happens if they do well in this area and then we are over run with eagles?

Evidence from Europe suggests that the Isle of Wight and surrounding area could support a maximum of 6-8 pairs of nesting White-tailed Eagles. If the population reaches this level the birds will disperse to other sites along the South Coast.

What do they eat?

As a generalist predator White-tailed Eagles take fish, birds and medium-sized mammals and also scavenge carrion, which can be an important element of the diet at certain times of the year. They tend to favour whichever prey is most seasonally abundant. For example fish are particularly important in spring and summer, with birds and mammals favoured in autumn and winter. The White-tailed Eagle’s preference for fishing in shallow water mean estuarine areas in and around the Isle of Wight will be favoured fishing grounds, with seasonally abundant species such as Grey Mullet, likely to form a significant proportion of the diet. The Isle of Wight, Solent and surrounding area supports large numbers of migratory water birds which would likely constitute an important element of White-tailed Eagle diet, particularly in winter. They regularly search tidelines for washed up dead fish, birds and sea mammals.

Will they capture red squirrels?

White-tailed Eagles will pose no threat to the Isle of Wight’s Red Squirrels. They are not agile enough to catch red squirrels in wooded areas, and favour wide open spaces for hunting. In Scotland where White-tailed Eagles nest in forests with healthy populations of Red Squirrels there has been no evidence of them being brought to nests as prey despite extensive monitoring by volunteers and using camera traps. It is possible, in fact, that there may be indirect benefits to the islands Red Squirrels, if White-tailed Eagles were to predate Buzzards.

Fish form a key part of the White-tailed Eagles’ diet (photo by Mike Crutch)

Will the eagles take lambs or other livestock?

Some White-tailed Eagles scavenge dead lambs in Scotland and very occasionally take small and weak individuals of blackface sheep on hill grazings. However this is predominantly due to the open range nature of agriculture and bad weather as well as the lack of alternative wild prey in some biologically poor regions. In the Netherlands we have found that White-tailed Eagles breed in areas grazed by sheep but the researchers who have kept detailed feeding records have recorded no cases of eagles taking lambs or any other livestock. There is no conflict with farming. There is an abundant supply of wild prey – particularly waterbirds and fish. A similar scenario is likely on the Isle of Wight given the high prey availability in the Solent and surrounding areas. Nevertheless we will be sure to maintain a dialogue with the farming community throughout the project.

Will they predate gamebirds?

The White-tailed Eagles preference for foraging along coastal waters and inland lakes means that they are unlikely to come into contact with gamebirds, but may occasionally scavenge dead pheasants lying in open surroundings.

Are they a threat to pets and can they be dangerous?

No. There is no threat to pets and the birds do not pose any threat to people.

Are they a threat to other wildlife?

No. In other parts of Europe White-tailed Eagles co-exist alongside the same range of species found in southern England and they do not impact upon populations of any rare species. Colonial nesting birds such as gulls and terns, and waders, including Black-tailed Godwits, fly up and harass eagles before they reach breeding colonies. Evidence from the Netherlands shows that they prefer to avoid these areas.

Will they take wading birds and ground nesting birds?

As a generalist predator, White-tailed Eagles tend to favour the most seasonally abundant prey. This means that in spring and summer fish, rather than birds, are likely to form the key part of the diet. Furthermore evidence from other parts of Europe, such as the Danube Delta, where there are 20-25 breeding pairs, indicates that White-tailed Eagles have no impact on ground-nesting birds. Wildfowl are taken in preference to waders, as demonstrated by the fact that the eight most commonly caught bird species taken in the Danube Delta were ducks and geese, with Coot the most commonly taken species, followed by Mallard. The same is true in the Netherlands where wildfowl are the favoured prey with goslings of Greylag and Canada Geese forming a key part of the diet in summer, along with Coot. Sea eagles tend to take injured and weak individuals.

 

What will the eagles do to the small bird populations?

White-tailed Eagles will have no effect on small birds. In some places they are known to take young Carrion Crows and Magpies which themselves are far more likely to have an impact on small birds.

There are now over 130 pairs of White-tailed Eagles in Scotland following the successful reintroduction project there.

When the birds fly over wetlands will they scare off all our wading birds?

Evidence from the Netherlands indicates that disturbance to wading birds by the White-tailed Eagles is similar to that caused by Peregrines and Greater Black-backed Gulls, and waders and other species quickly get used to their presence. The eagles spend most of the day perched, often within views of large numbers of waders and wildfowl. Disturbance to wading birds is therefore not considered an issue by Dutch researchers.

There are already a lot of scavenging birds, such as Herring Gulls, why do we want another scavenger?

White-tailed Eagles are far shyer than birds like Herring Gulls, and won’t scavenge food from close to people in the same way. They are more likely to scavenge dead birds, mammals and fish in open areas close to or beside water.

What impact will the birds have on fishing, both river and sea fishing?

White-tailed Eagles are likely to have minimal impact on fish stocks. They are likely to take the majority of their fish in shallow estuarine water, and will favour seasonally abundant species such as Grey Mullet. Furthermore their ability to exploit other prey such as birds and mammals means that fish populations will not be under threat.

This is a built up area, why do we need a big bird of prey like the eagle?

Although in the UK White-tailed Eagles are synonymous with the west coast of Scotland, they breed close to people in many parts of lowland Europe, including in France, Netherlands and Germany. People greatly enjoying seeing their local eagles in these areas.

There was discussion years ago about doing a recovery project in Suffolk, why didn’t they deliver that project?

Funding was withdrawn by Natural England, the proposed lead organisation, because the project was not considered a priority at the time. However the scientific and conservation value remain clear, and we believe it will bring many benefits to the Isle of Wight, including increased tourism revenue.

Is this of national importance?

The government’s 25 year plan for nature in England and Wales, published early in 2018, includes the reintroduction of white-tailed eagles as a priority action. Regionally we think this will be regarded as an extremely exciting project and the future potential of watching adult White-tailed Eagles soaring over the cliffs of the Isle of Wight will be a dream for wildlife enthusiasts, the local community and visitors to the island.

Whote-tailed Eagles snatch fish from the surface of the water (photo by Mike Crutch)