Having just returned from a fishing trip to the high hills of Galloway and Carrick, the headlines about re-establishing golden eagles in the Southern Uplands have a fresh resonance. I’ve written (and ranted) before about eagles in Galloway, although usually in relation to the hackneyed spectre of “persecution” as an idle, often pig-headed means of explaining their current situation.
It is genuinely good news that money has been set aside to help eagles in Galloway and across the Southern Uplands, and I look forward to seeing how the project progresses. The current status quo is hardly good enough, particularly since part of the existing policy involves feeding eagles carrion from artificial feeding platforms. Work by the JHI has helped to show that while eagles fed on carrion can live for many years, it takes a constant supply of fresh prey to bring off successful, healthy youngsters. This is where Galloway is sorely lacking, and it should be no surprise that we have well established but morbidly unproductive birds as a result.
From my perspective, this shortage of prey is the first and most crucial issue to address in resurrecting eagles. Observers have noted that Galloway eagles bring off their young on a diet that is largely comprised of roe kids – this is hardly surprising since it reflects a general availability of prey species. In the Cairngorms and the North East, eagles thrive on mountain hares, and until the hills were planted with forestry and the hares were all but lost, this was also the case in Galloway. The collapse of our blue hare population has surely been the driver behind the current doldrums.
We have a tendency to cluster around the species which excite us. The new project is wholly directed at eagles, but it will surely fail if we put on the blinkers and start to fret about a single species. For the project to succeed, we need to focus on conserving less glamorous species like mountain hares and blackgame, grouse and waders – the modest, subtle grassroots which may not attract the headlines but yet which fill an eaglet’s crop. It’s a great strategy to use eagles as a publicity-friendly figurehead for a more general overhaul of upland habitats, but it would be a fatal error to lose a sense of perspective.
We didn’t see any eagles when we were fishing this year. We saw peregrines and a family of young merlins instead, but I couldn’t resist casting my mind back to the glorious afternoon in July last year as I watched a young eagle tumbling with one of its parents over the vast emptiness of Shalloch on Minnoch. These birds belong here.