I was chuffed to take on new work for the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project over Christmas. I’ve been interested in this project since it began, and it’s been fascinating to see how the work has progressed across the Southern Uplands during the last few years. It’s now my role (until March) to make sure that farmers, keepers and land managers know how the project is doing and what the tagged eagles have been up to. On being shown a map of satellite-tracked eagle movements, I was thrilled to find that one of the birds roosted overnight on our hill as part of a wide and circuitous loop of southwest Scotland. Trying to engage with relevant landowners, I discovered that I am one of them!
In all honesty, I was a little sceptical about this project at first. We already have an existing population of eagles in Galloway, and their marginal status seems to be a reflection of habitat loss and a shortage of live prey. This in turn is linked to a lack of hands-on management in key areas which has led to the loss of hares, grouse and black game which are crucial for rearing eagle chicks and turning out productive fledgelings. I reasoned that an investment in the conservation of prey species would lead to a proportionate boost for the birds which depend upon them. The reality is closer to the opposite; without eagles to galvanise public opinion and get people tuned in to the current parlous state of affairs, we’ll never see hares and grouse restored to areas where they were formerly abundant. So much hangs upon our ability to integrate nature into land use change, and it seems like eagles are the only birds popular enough to gather sufficient clout to rescue and restore habitats which now stand on the brink.
In the meantime, many of the best and most productive areas of moorland in southwest Scotland are currently facing the axe and may soon be planted with commercial forestry. Looking at the satellite records left by that eagle which came to our farm, it became clear that as it moved around Galloway, it seemed to leapfrog between farms and moors which I know are earmarked for afforestation or intensification in the near future. Under current political and economic drivers, it won’t be long before many of these places are of no use to eagles anymore.
I believe eagles have a great deal to offer this area, not least because the project puts a blaring spotlight on the Southern Uplands. I don’t think the extremity of our ecological decline can really be understood outside of Southern Scotland, and there is no longer any time for warm words or indecision. It’s an exciting project and I can’t wait to do my best by it. And it’s also clear that farmers, foresters and land managers are instrumental in delivering a successful outcome – I’m looking forward to lending a hand.