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 pale head and white 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 South Coast of 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 will use the same long-established methods on the Isle of Wight. The first six birds were released in August 2019.

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 listed as species of Conservation Concern. 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, close to their natal site. 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 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 likely to be a favoured area for 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 inland water bodies. 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.

Who is running the project?

The project is a partnership between Forestry England and the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation with additional support from conservation organisations and other key stakeholders based on both the island and the mainland who form the project steering group and monitoring and evaluation group. 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 project officer is Steve Egerton-Read. He is based on the Isle of Wight and coordinates all day-to-day operations, including monitoring of the translocated birds both pre and post release, and daily feeding. Ongoing liaison with local stakeholders is also a key role of the post.

How can I contact the project?

You are best to contact us via email – seaeagleengland@forestryengland.uk. Alternatively you can phone 0300 067 4600.

When is the project happening?

The first six juvenile White-tailed Eagles were translocated to the Isle of Wight in late June 2019. All six birds were successfully released in August. Further released will take place over the next four summers. A maximum of 60 birds will be released over this period.

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 are 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 or three.

Who has agreed that the project can go ahead?

Natural England has given permission for this project and granted a licence to undertake the reintroduction on the Isle of Wight. Scottish Natural Heritage have granted a licence to collect chicks from Scotland. In addition the UK White-tailed Eagle group is fully supportive of the project.

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

A feasibility report was submitted to Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage as part of the licence application. 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. This study can be viewed here.

How much public support was there for this project?

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 1,962 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. Respondent 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.

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 for the first two years has been secured from a private donor, and additional funds will be sought from a range of different sources.

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.

All of the juvenile White-tailed Eagles will be ringed and satellite-tagged prior to release.

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

The Natural England licence permits the release of up to 60 birds. In Ireland 75% of released birds survived their first year and annual survival was 90% thereafter, while in Scotland around 37% of released juveniles have reached breeding age (5 years). If the first birds are released, as planned, in 2019 breeding is not likely to occur until at least 2024. It is hoped that an initial 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 juvenile White-tailed Eagles may disperse and explore widely in their first two years in particular, but eventually settle to breed within 50 km of the release site. This indicates the released birds that survive to breeding age will most likely settle on the Isle of Wight or in the New Forest initially.

Where exactly will the birds be on the Island?

The sites are confidential at this stage to ensure the birds can settle in without disruption. Once released the birds will disperse around the Island and into the Solent and should become a regular sight after this. We intend to keep the local community, visitors and interested groups updated on the bird’s development and work with other local organisations and stakeholders to establish opportunities to observe them as the project progresses.

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

Food (predominantly fish) will be provided at designated feeding areas. This will continue throughout the first winter to encourage the released juveniles to remain on the Island for as long as possible. Nevertheless we expect the first birds to begin dispersing into the winder area during the autumn.

How will you keep track of the birds?

The birds would be fitted with satellite-tags, colour rings and VHF transmitters prior to release. This will enable their movements to be tracked remotely and to help us recognise individuals more easily. This data is made publically available on our website.

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

Young White-tailed Eagles wander widely before they breed, but most eventually settle close to their natal site. Research in Scotland revealed that juveniles often range up to 200 km away in their first two years, before returning to breed closer to their natal site (median natal dispersal (i.e. distance from nest/release site to first breeding location) 21–45 km in males and 47–58 km in females). 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. This included a juvenile that spent much of winter 2018/19 in and around the New Forest.

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 area 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.

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)

Can I expect to see the birds?

Although the release site is confidential with no public access, the eagles released in August 2019 have already begun to disperse around the Island and into the Solent – and so they can be encountered anywhere in the local area. Designated feeding sites will be established to encourage the birds to remain in the area during their first winter. White-tailed Eagle viewing points will be set-up in partnership with other local organisations and stakeholders in suitable areas both on the Island and on the mainland. This will avoid disturbance to the eagles, or any other sensitive species or areas.

Where can I go to see the birds?

Eagle viewing points will be set-up in areas with good access to allow local people and tourists alike to observe the birds. Once they begin breeding watch points will also be established near any 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. This approach has been successful on the Isle of Mull where eagle tourism makes a significant contribution to the local economy.

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. In some areas of the world they even breed on the ground.

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 wider Solent 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 small to medium-sized mammals and also scavenge carrion, which can be an important element of the diet throughout the year. They tend to favour whichever prey is most seasonally abundant. For example 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. 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. A recent study in Germany showed that carrion account for almost 30% of White-tailed Eagle diet in winter. A wintering juvenile White-tailed Eagle that was present in the New Forest and western Hampshire for at least three months from early December 2018 was observed feeding on a deer carcass provided by a Forestry Commission keeper.

Will they capture Red Squirrels?

Evidence from Scotland demonstrates that White-tailed Eagles pose no threat to Red Squirrels. They are not agile enough to catch Red Squirrels in wooded areas, and instead 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. For example at one site monitored by Forestry Commission Scotland many hundreds of hours of observations, over several years, were made by volunteers of a pair of White-tailed Eagles nesting in an east coast pine wood with a large population of Red Squirrels. They did not observe Red Squirrel being brought to the nest as a prey item. Likewise Red Squirrel did not feature as a prey item at another site where over 7000 camera-trap photos were taken at a White-tailed Eagle nest located in a forest with Red Squirrels.

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?

During the public consultation concerns were raised by some that White-tailed Eagles may predate lambs or other livestock. We have been careful to listen to these concerns, to look at the scientific research around this issue, and to speak to people with direct experience. Evidence indicates that 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 view of the concerns that had been raised, the project team visited the Netherlands to speak with researchers monitoring the expanding Dutch White-tailed Eagle population. There 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 and there is no conflict with farming. There is an abundant supply of wild prey – particularly water birds and fish – in the Netherlands and a similar scenario is likely on the Isle of Wight given the high prey availability in the Solent and surrounding areas. In Ireland, where there are now ten breeding pairs of White-tailed Eagles following a reintroduction project, there have been no cases of eagle predation on lambs and most farmers are either neutral or supportive of the project, despite initial concerns.

A key responsibility of the project officer’s role is to liaise closely with the farming community from the outset, and respond to any local issues immediately should they occur. Representatives from the farming community, as well as other key local stakeholders – are members of the project’s steering group.

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. There have been many studies on the diet of White-tailed Eagles across Europe and no quantifiable negative effects have been demonstrated on any one species. This is because White-tailed Eagles have a broad and varied diet and tend to favour the most seasonally abundant prey, including carrion. It is also important to consider that White-tailed Eagles will tend to target injured, sick or dying waterfowl when hunting.

In many parts of Europe White-tailed Eagles coexist with the same range of species that occur in wetland and coastal habitat around the Isle of Wight, Solent and surrounding region in both summer and winter, with no negative effects. 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.

There have been concerns that the presence of White-tailed Eagles would increase pressure on several SPA sites in the Solent where recreational disturbance is an ongoing problem. However disturbance by White-tailed Eagles is not considered an issue by Dutch researchers at internationally important wetland sites such as Krammer-Volkerak. This SPA and Nature 2000 site has a very similar species assemblage to the Solent, with large numbers of Dark-bellied Brent Geese, Teal, Black-tailed Godwit and Ringed Plover all present along with resident White-tailed Eagles. It is also important to consider that White-tailed Eagles spend much of the day perched. Recent research in Germany demonstrated that eagles prefer the “sit-and-wait” for prey strategy, and as such are only on the wing for short periods each day, thereby minimising the amount of disturbance they create. Furthermore, migratory species such as Brent Geese encounter White-tailed Eagles across their migratory range. The breeding range of the two species overlaps in some parts of Arctic Russia and the migrating Brent Geese may encounter White-tailed Eagles at many sites on the flyway through the White Sea and Baltic Sea, and along the North Sea coast.

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 waders and wildfowl?

Evidence from the Netherlands indicates that disturbance to waterbirds 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.  Recent research in Germany demonstrated that eagles prefer the “sit-and-wait” for prey strategy, and as such are only on the wing for short periods each day.

As explained above there have been concerns that the presence of White-tailed Eagles would increase pressure on several SPA sites in the Solent where recreational disturbance is an ongoing problem. However disturbance by White-tailed Eagles is not considered an issue by Dutch researchers at internationally important wetland sites such as Krammer-Volkerak. This SPA and Nature 2000 site has a very similar species assemblage to the Solent, with large numbers of Dark-bellied Brent Geese, Teal, Black-tailed Godwit and Ringed Plover all present along with resident White-tailed Eagles. It is also important to consider that migratory species such as Brent Geese encounter White-tailed Eagles across their migratory range, and as such will be habituated to their presence. The breeding range of the two species overlaps in some parts of Arctic Russia and the migrating Brent Geese may encounter White-tailed Eagles at many sites on the flyway through the White Sea and Baltic Sea, and along the North Sea coast.

In Denmark there has been a rapid increase in the population of breeding White-tailed Eagles in the last 30 years, and there are now more than 100 breeding pairs, and also a large pool of non-breeding sub-adults. The eagles favour offshore islands and islets for resting, where they potentially compete for space with breeding terns and gulls. However, there has been only one case on an island in Mariager Fjord in eastern Jutland where the increasing presence of eagles may have resulted in the eventual abandonment of a colony of Sandwich Terns. Biologists who monitor colonial nesting species in Denmark are not aware of any other examples of colony desertion by gull and tern species due to eagle presence. In fact there are several island sites, which eagles frequent throughout the summer, which retain their breeding gull and tern colonies. Furthermore there is no evidence that White-tailed Eagles have had a negative impact on flocks of staging Dark-bellied Brent Geese in the Danish Wadden Sea in autumn.

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. A recent field visit to the Netherlands by members of the project team showed the ability of the White-tailed Eagle, when it is not persecuted, to live in landscapes of farmland, villages, towns and even cities as long as there is sufficient wild food and suitable nesting places in quieter areas. The distances of nest sites from busy activity in the Netherlands can be as little as 500 metres. This behaviour is similar in Germany and Poland.

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 and surrounding areas on the South Coast, including increased tourism revenue.

Is this of national importance?

The UK Government’s 25 year Environment Plan, published early in 2018, includes the reintroduction of White-tailed Eagles as a priority action. The White-tailed Eagle is also listed as a species of Conservation Concern in the UK. 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.

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