Bringing hope in troubled times

2020 will of course be remembered as a very unusual year, full of sad memories for many people.  Even the worst of times have high points, though, and for us 2020 brought the chance to observe the fascinating lives of the two-year-old sea eagles on the Isle of Wight. When we started the project in 2019, we had done our homework and hoped that the young white-tailed eagles brought down from the north of Scotland would prosper there, and in southern England, thanks to plentiful sources of wild food.

This past year has justified those early hopes of ours. In the first year, the birds relied on carrion or food put out at the release site. How exciting it was, then, when Steve Egerton-Read, the project officer on the island, saw the first two birds start to catch grey mullet in the estuary.  This was a really important first step, because mullet – ideal food for eagles – are very plentiful around the coasts of the English Channel, and are easy to catch when they shoal in shallow waters. The eagles then added cuttlefish to their diet, catching them as they spawned in the shallows.  That had not been in our plan but showed that the future looked good.

In the meantime, two of the eagles headed north and summered in rabbit-rich valleys in the North York Moors. The female ‘mullet hunter’ also left the island and summered in the Moorfoot Hills in southern Scotland. By September she had returned to the Isle of Wight, to a big sigh of relief from us: her return was excellent evidence that the sea eagles were hefted to the translocation site.  On mainland England, the eagles were extremely good at finding areas full of rabbits.  The satellite transmitters proved to be extremely accurate, allowing Tim Mackrill and Steve Egerton-Read to work out easily the location of the birds and make really important contacts with people living on the ground.  

During these travels, we were delighted to receive enthusiastic reports from members of the public who had seen a sea eagle flying over their homes during lockdown. Analysis of the satellite data by Tim showed why the birds were rarely seen: well over 90% of their daily routine involved sitting quietly in big trees, just watching the world go by. 

This winter, too, has been very exciting. The two older birds on the Isle of Wight have followed flocks of gulls way out into the English Channel to catch sea fish, probably mainly bass on the hunt for sprats. As a boy I used to birdwatch at St Catherine’s Point, and would never have considered the possibility of looking out to sea to watch eagles catching fish and even eat the small ones in the air. 

Another seven young were translocated in the summer so the restoration of white-tailed eagles to England is progressing well.

Both G324 (pictured) and G274 have continued to catch fish in the sea off the south-west coast of the Isle of Wight during the winter. They sometimes eat their catch on the wing (photo by Andy Butler)

Sadly, the osprey recovery project to Poole Harbour was quite different.  The pandemic prevented us from monitoring the Scottish nests effectively and, unable to be sure of collecting enough healthy young to translocate, we had to miss a year. To make matters worse, the first translocated male to return from Africa in 2019 failed to reappear to join his mate, CJ7, who originates from Rutland Water, waiting at their Poole Harbour eyrie. This was almost certainly due to the impacts of high pressure, which sat for a long period over the British Isles; it meant beautiful April weather for us, but dangerous conditions for migrants such as ospreys and swallows. The strong easterly winds and often poor weather over Iberia meant they risked getting swept out to sea to die.  In Scotland, where the annual survival of adult breeding ospreys is typically around 90%, larger numbers than usual failed to return to their nests and the same was reported in other Western populations. Our swallows, too, were scarce. 

We are looking now with enthusiasm towards the new season. Will the eagles currently wintering in Norfolk and Lincolnshire return to the Isle of Wight, and will the young ones entering their second year become proficient fishers, like the first cohort?  There is no doubt that they will already be watching and learning from the older eagles. The Poole Harbour osprey team will be expectantly scanning the skies for the return of blue CJ7, and will then face an anxious wait for a male to join her and start breeding.  Later in the summer, we plan to translocate another twelve young as part of that project, and hopefully a similar number of young white-tailed eagles will be flown from the north of Scotland to start new lives on the Isle of Wight.

CJ7 waiting for a male at Poole Harbour

These projects have taken place this year in an atmosphere of rewilding, a groundswell of feeling that we have to restore nature in a big way to help prevent the terrible consequences of biodiversity collapse and climate breakdown. We know that people find it inspiring that we can restore such a huge eagle to the skies of southern England, with a recognition that wild things don’t always have to live in wild places. We can only help to do these things with our excellent partners, working on ospreys with Birds of Poole Harbour and on white-tailed eagles with Forestry England, as well as with tree climbers and fieldworkers. And, of course, with the marvellous support of donors, large and small, who fund the fieldwork; we thank you all most sincerely for your donations and welcome encouragement. 

There is a still lot to do, so Tim Mackrill and I are always exploring new opportunities with new species. We would love to help restore the golden eagle to English skies and are looking at the next stages of projects we have already started. We are working, with partners, on a project idea to try to rejuvenate remnant populations of mountain hares, translocating them from a Scottish estate with large numbers, where they used to be shot, to two large mountains where hares have become isolated and probably inbred. It’s a small trial but could be important, just like our successful red squirrel translocations in the Highlands over a decade ago, which were the precursor to further projects in subsequent years. 

It’s encouraging to see the number of beaver projects underway in England but we are extremely disappointed with the situation in Scotland. The overriding evidence is that beavers are integral to the restoration of all nature in wetlands and have wider benefits in terms of the prevention of flooding downstream. At present, the Scottish Government sanctions either the killing of beavers or their live export to England. Both of these are unacceptable: we desperately need them here and should use any natural surplus to recolonise freshwaters throughout Scotland.  We see 2021 also as the year when we move forward with the reintroduction of lynx – the discussions on this iconic mammal have gone on long enough (25 years or more) and, in times of a dramatic recognition of the need for us to live better with nature, the return of the lynx to the Scottish Highlands would be as emblematic as that of the sea eagle to the Isle of Wight. We are here, ready to help make it a reality.

All best wishes for 2021 to all our friends and supporters.

Roy Dennis and Tim Mackrill

G274 has become adept at catching fish around the coasts of the Isle of Wight (photo by Ainsley Bennett)