White-tailed Eagle Reintroduction on the Isle of Wight

White-tailed Eagles were once widespread along the whole of the South Coast of England, from Cornwall to Kent, before being driven to extinction by relentless persecution that began in the Middle Ages. The last pair bred on Culver Cliff on the Isle of Wight in 1780. Many parts of southern England remain highly suitable for the species, and following the reintroduction of White-tailed Eagles to Scotland – where there are now over 130 breeding pairs – we have been granted licences by Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage to begin an English reintroduction in partnership with Forestry England, based on the Isle of Wight. Re-establishing a population of White-tailed Eagles on the South Coast will restore a lost species, and help to link populations in Scotland and Ireland with those in the Netherlands and France.

As a generalist predator, White-tailed Eagles have a varied diet that includes fish (photo by Mike Crutch).

Many parts of southern England are capable of supporting breeding and wintering White-tailed Eagles, but the Isle of Wight was considered the most suitable location for the reintroduction. 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 quiet areas for immature birds. It is also well positioned to facilitate the dispersal of eagles both west and east along the coast to sites such as Poole Harbour in Dorset and Pagham Harbour in West Sussex. Inland lakes such as Blashford, situated 30 km to the north-west, will provide additional foraging areas, and the nearby New Forest is also likely to be visited by the birds after release. In time there is potential for White-tailed Eagles to spread to other coastal regions of southern England as well as to inland water bodies.

Evidence from the Netherlands, where there is a small but growing population of White-tailed Eagles, shows that the species will readily nest in densely populated areas, close to people. As a generalist predator White-tailed Eagles favour fish and water birds and scavenge carrion.  They tend to favour whichever prey is most seasonally abundant. Fish are particularly important in spring and summer, with waterbirds often 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 and the Solent 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 are likely to form a key element of the diet in winter. In Denmark where there are now over 100 pairs of breeding White-tailed Eagles (from none in the early 1990s) it is thought that most geese and ducks taken by eagles are likely injured or sick. They regularly search tidelines for washed up dead fish, birds and sea mammals and a recent study in Germany showed that carrion account for almost 30% of White-tailed Eagle diet in winter. The high concentrations of wintering wildfowl and waders in the Solent and surrounding area mean that foraging eagles will regularly encounter bird carcasses, and they will also take any washed-up dead fish or marine mammals as they search shorelines for food.

Dutch researchers studying White-tailed Eagles have found that any disturbance to wading birds by the eagles is similar to that of Peregrine, and species get used to their presence; while breeding colonies of gulls and terns are effective at mobbing and driving off the eagles.

In addition to the conservation benefits, we believe that the project will give a significant boost to the Isle of Wight economy, including in winter. In Scotland eagle tourism is extremely popular and recent reports have shown White-tailed Eagles generate up to £5 million to the economy of the Isle of Mull each year, and £2.4 million to the Isle of Skye.

A feasibility report was submitted to both Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage as part of the licence applications. This outlined the scientific and conservation rationale for the project, feedback from public meetings and surveys, and results from a range of interested groups also consulted for their views and feedback.

You can download a copy of the feasibility report here.  You can also find more detailed information about the project on our Frequently Asked Questions page.

What does the project involve?

The project is a partnership between Forestry England and the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation with additional support from conservation organisations and other key stakeholders and organisations based on both the Island and mainland who form the project steering group.

Juvenile White-tailed Eagles are collected under licence, issued by Scottish Natural Heritage, from nests in Scotland and translocated to the Isle of Wight in late June. They are then held in a quiet, confidential, location for approximately four-eight weeks before being released. Food (mainly fish) is provided close to the release site during the autumn and winter before the young eagles become independent. The Natural England licence permits the release of up to 60 juvenile eagles on the Isle of Wight over a five year period from 2019. The first six birds were translocated to the Isle of Wight in late June 2019 and subsequently released in August.

Young White-tailed Eagles do not breed until they are around five years of age. It is hoped that a small population of 6-8 pairs will become established on the Isle of Wight and in the wider Solent area, with birds spreading east and west along the South Coast thereafter. Evidence from Scotland indicates that the young White-tailed Eagles will wander widely before they breed, before eventually settling within around 50 km of the release site.

How can I get in touch with the project?

To contact the project officer, Steve Egerton-Read, who is based on the Isle of Wight, please click here.

Public Consultation

Public support has been high. 85% of the people who completed a questionnaire at three public meetings held on the Isle of Wight in November were in favour of the project. A total of 1962 people completed the same questionnaire online between 2nd and 30th November, with 86% in favour, 10% against and 4% not sure. There was clear majority support from people across the local area. Respondents to the survey from the Isle of Wight, Hampshire, Dorset and Sussex – the counties where the reintroduced birds are most likely to settle and breed in the future – were 76% in favour of the project. The public consultation also involved extensive discussions with a range of different stakeholders, and we intend to maintain this approach throughout the project.

For further information about the project check out our Frequently Asked Questions page

White-tailed Eagles have an eight foot wingspan – making them the UK’s largest bird of prey (photo by Mike Crutch)