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?