Translocating Eagles

What could be better than an eagle on the Merrick? But food is scarce for large predatory birds
What could be better than a golden eagle on the Merrick? But eagles need more than a lovely view

Quite astounding to read the announcement this morning that the RSPB aims to translocate golden eagles from the Highlands to the Southern Uplands in a bid to improve the species’ conservation status South of the Highland line. This flies in the face of the perpetual notion that gamekeepers are killing all the eagles by implying that the Highlands have eagles to spare, and it also provides a major conservation charity with a wonderful, crowd-pleasing headline. I’ve written about the shortage of eagles in the Southern Uplands several times before on this blog, particularly in Galloway where the reason for their absence is staggeringly clear. I have probably covered the subject so often and in so much detail that I should start beating my head on a brick wall, but the logic is so straightforward that I almost can’t believe some of the decisions made by the “professionals”.

But what a headline! Golden eagles to be brought down from the highlands to boost ailing stocks in the South! The story segues so beautifully into discussions about raptor persecution that journalists just have to cut and paste comments from the Scottish Minister and readers can “tut” and shake their heads to their hearts’ content.

I could write for weeks about how dearly I’d love to see eagles across Galloway, but if we want them in the South West, we have to provide them with more than just a lovely view. Some Galloway eagles are already being fed on artificial feeding platforms, suggesting that the real spanner in the works is not the politically high-octane notion of “persecution”, but more a simple, fundamental lack of suitable food.

The RSPB have been proud to release red kites in Galloway for fifteen years, but a huge number of these are fed from an artificial feeding platform at Laurieston, making them little more than feral scavengers. If the reintroduction had been a success, these birds surely wouldn’t need the meat they are given, and it seems that their purpose is now little more than a kind of fund-raising tourist magnet. What a travesty it would be if the same happened to eagles, and they were brought to an area that could not support them to be fed from artificial feeding platforms.

Sadly, common sense makes no difference to the commercial conservation machine. If we focussed on the bottom of the food chain, the top of the food chain would look after itself. The money they are proposing to spend on translocating eagles should be invested in grassroots conservation projects which aim to encourage prey species like mountain hares, red grouse and blackgame. An improvement in prey numbers would enable higher predators to be more productive and might even draw others in over the Firth of Clyde by way of natural dispersal.

It is a generally accepted rule that reintroductions and translocations can only take place where the habitat is suitable for the proposed species. Given the current state of eagles in Galloway and their dependance on un-natural food stations, it is almost lunacy to approach a translocation project in less than a year’s time without any obvious drive to enhance or improve a suitable and naturally food-laden habitat for them.

Ecologically, the Southern Uplands is on its knees. Charismatic breeding waders decline every year, and things look bleak for all kinds of species. We need a fundamental root and branch shift in philosophy to save what we have, and that has to start at the bottom of the food chain, not at the top. It would be great if eagles were being pitched as the ultimate goal for a more general revision of conservation policy, but just plugging them straight in to a broken ecosystem is bananas and does a disservice to every other species currently failing in the South of Scotland.

But then again, the general public loves to see eagles more than they love the graft of careful conservation grazing, moorland management and predator control. Why do the hard work when the headlines are so easy and so lucrative?

4 thoughts on “Translocating Eagles

  1. Alan

    I agree with every word, these raptor releases are just an ego trip for people who are fully aware of the lack of a suitable ecosystem but are only interested in headlines and kudos. They are worried about harriers “declining” on the Isle of Man but would never do anything to improve the food stocks.

  2. rupert stutchbury

    I disagree with Allen, these people are not fully aware of anything. They are zealots, steadfastly remaining ignorant in their self certainty. It is a classic case of… don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up!

  3. Steve Carver

    I’ve not been to Merrick in a long, long while, but from the photo it looks like over-grazed sheep trod to me. Not a very attractive place for eagles. It is, however, one of the 42 core wild land areas identified in the 2014 SNH wild land map, but this is just “wild” in terms of perception and not ecology (I know … I designed the methodology SNH used). A bottom-up approach would be nice and for that to happen (assuming we do want eagles back in the Southern Uplands) we need true ecological change… “rewilding” if you like… to improve the long-term potential for eagles through habitat restoration (both land cover and prey species lower down the trophic levels).

  4. Gary

    The translocation of Golden Eagles to the south of Scotland doesn’t comply with the Scottish Code for Translocation which is based upon the IUCN Guidelines for Reintroduction and Translocation in that it hasn’t addressed the issues of why the present population, if it can be called such, is struggling. How on earth this project has got Lottery funding is beyond belief when the Irish reintroduction has highlighted issues with food source in Donegal, from what I’ve been led to believe 58 out of the 75 eagles that were donated from Scotland have perished. I’m sure most people want to see more eagles in the skies over southern Scotland but the biotic and abiotic requirements don’t exist at present for this to happen. This is just another “jobs for the boys” project and cant be allowed to happen under the present circumstances.

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