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Where Eagles Dare?

Icon Of The Mountain Still Faces Great Challenges…

Despite the marked increase in the number of golden eagles in the Hebrides, Scotland`s overall population of this majestic bird has remained unchanged in 11 years. The species still faces a number of threats.

Scotland is home to almost all of the UK breeding population of golden eagles, which 11 years ago was an estimated 422 pairs. In fact, England has one breeding pair only. The most recent survey by RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and the Scottish Raptor Study Groups (SRSG) was conducted from January through until late July last year and revealed that the UK population is now 431 pairs. The apparent increase of 2% since 1992 may be partly due to more comprehensive survey coverage in 2003, so the preliminary conclusion is that the population has remained stable. There is, however, no room for complacency as the overall figure conceals decreases in several areas.In 1992, the UK breeding population was estimated at 422 pairs (of which all were in Scotland, concentrated in the Highlands and Hebrides, apart from one pair in England). The overall population has remained similar to that estimated in 1982 (424 pairs). However, this apparent stability masks regional changes. The principal threats to golden eagles are persecution, especially on grouse moors and in some sheep farming areas; large-scale afforestation; deterioration of its habitat leading to shortages of food in summer and winter; and human disturbance.In the Hebrides, the current population of 147 pairs is up nearly 20% on the 1992 figure. This substantial increase, more than 20 additional pairs recorded in 2003, illustrates the growing national and international importance of these islands for golden eagles. It is heartening that these figures are up in some areas where the birds had been subject to persecution in the past. In contrast, continued declines in eagle numbers in parts of mainland Scotland are worrying.

RSPB Scotland`s Head of Research, Dr Jerry Wilson said, The success of this year`s survey is a testament to the skills of the Scottish Raptor Study Group and RSPB Scotland fieldworkers who managed to visit almost all known golden eagle home ranges in Scotland. Although numbers appear to have held up well, overall, since the last survey 11 years ago, there are encouraging increases in some areas and worrying declines in others. Further analyses of the survey results will give us a clearer picture of the likely causes of these differences.Dr Helen Riley, Secretary of the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Group and ornithologist with SNH said, We are delighted to hear about the overall slight increase in the number of pairs of golden eagles found in Scotland; and in particular of the increases reported in the Hebridean Islands. The overall decline reported from the Scottish mainland, however, is very disappointing and needs to be investigated to see whether the predictions that this is caused by ongoing persecution are confirmed.

Scottish Raptor Study Groups`, Patrick Stirling-Aird, said, While at first glance the picture for golden eagles in Scotland seems healthy, there is real cause for concern over the population decreases in eastern areas of the Highlands and over poor breeding success in some locations there. The underlying causes of such population decreases and low breeding success need to be tackled to help bring the Scottish golden eagle population up to a more satisfactory natural level.Dr Jeff Watson, author and ornithologist who has studied Golden Eagles in Scotland for over 20 years commented: The three national surveys of eagles since 1982 are a powerful testament to the dedication and commitment of the largely unpaid members of Scotland`s superb network of raptor workers. The results from 2003 confirm the comparative health of the population in the north and west but reveal some worrying declines in the south and east. In Scotland we have a special responsibility to protect this magnificent and iconic bird that is forever a symbol of our wild landscapes. Information from these national surveys is crucial if we are to understand the pressures and problems facing this majestic creature.Prior to 1800, golden eagles bred in hilly districts throughout the UK, with perhaps 500 pairs in Scotland and at least 50 in England (as far south as Derbyshire in the late 17th century) and Wales in the Middle Ages (Brown 1976, Holloway 1996, Watson 1997). The size of the previous Northern Irish population is not known. They had been exterminated from Wales by the mid 18th century and from England by the early 19th century, and the last breeding record from Northern Ireland was in County Antrim from 1953 -1960. Numbers in Scotland decreased significantly during the 19th century, due to persecution by gamekeepers and shepherds, with collectors of skins, eggs and young adding to the decline. The lowest point was probably reached in the 1870s.NB Scottish Natural Heritage chairs the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Group (SRMG), which includes the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Scottish Raptor Study Groups, British Trust for Ornithology Scotland, the Rare Breeding Birds Panel, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Scotland and the Scottish Ornithologists` Club. SRMG members signed an agreement (on 24 June 2002) to establish the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme. Under this scheme, the partner organisations are working together to coordinate best-practice raptor survey methods and standards, collate and analyse data on a consistent basis and disseminate findings through a publicly available report. The various organisations have been assigned different tasks within the monitoring work, with the overall scheme leading to enhanced monitoring and accurate data on Scotland`s birds of prey.

4th July 2014