White-tailed Eagle – a successful conservation story

It has been a busy year for White-tailed Eagles. The iconic and still scarce raptor has been expanding across Scotland, with reports of breeding in east Scotland, Orkney and Loch Lomond, in recent years.

White-tailed Eagle is a very large species of sea eagle, and our largest bird of prey (with a wingspan up to 2.5 meters!). It is a large apex predator and opportunistic scavenger, relying mainly on fish and water birds.

A threatened species recovers thanks to conservation efforts

Nowadays, the birds breed across a very wide range, between Greenland/Iceland all the way to Japan. In Europe, they are confined to the north. There are about 10,000 individuals, with a third of them located in Norway. The species formerly bred across a much wider area, extending to much of west and south Europe. During the 19th century, White-tailed Eagles suffered a huge decline, becoming almost extinct in Europe (with populations remaining only in Scandinavia) and eliminated from many countries. The cause of the decline was mainly habitat destruction, persecution (especially with the advent of firearms) and later also chemical pesticides. In England, the species disappeared in the 1700s, and in Scotland, the last individual was shot in 1918 in Shetland.

In recent decades, thanks to conservation efforts, the species recovered significantly in Europe. The larger populations are present in Russia and Norway (with a few thousand pairs in each country) but growing populations (numbering in the hundreds) occur in other parts of Scandinavia, Denmark, Poland, Ukraine, Germany, west Austria, and Hungary, and it has recently established a small population in the Netherlands. A recent census recorded 750 individuals across the whole length of the Danube river (whereas formerly numbers were very low), and in Denmark, the reintroduced population grew to 16 individuals from 1995 to 2014. This is good news!

An expanding range in West Scotland

In Scotland, its range is rapidly expanding thanks to successful conservation efforts. The first attempts at White-tailed Eagle reintroduction occurred in 1959 (Glen Etive, Argyll) and 1968 (Fair Isle, Shetland) but both failed. The first successful reintroduction happened on the Isle of Rum in 1975 and the first successful breeding was on Isle of Mull in 1985.

The species re-colonised the coastline of the Outer Hebrides in the following decades, albeit slowly at first. A pair was established on Harris in 1983 but it wasn't until the mid-1990s when the pairs also settled on Lewis and South Uist. Since then, the population increased at a more rapid pace, and by 2014, the Outer Hebrides accommodated 25 breeding pairs.

To the south of Rum and Mull, the expansion followed a similar pattern – an initial slow expansion followed by increased numbers in recent years.

On 3 November 1992, after an absence of over 100 years, the first White-tailed Eagle (a juvenile) was seen at close range in the Clauchland Hills on the Isle of Arran. There were no further sightings until 2004, when another juvenile was recorded. In the interim, there had been a second reintroduction programme, which took place in Wester Ross (1993 and 1998). Since the 2004 record, there have been more regular sightings on Arran: 2006 (one), 2008 (two), 2009 (two), 2010 (three), 2011 (two), 2012 (two), 2014 (three), 2016 (one) and 2017 (two juveniles together). In 2019, there were four records, and, impressively, in 2020 there were 20 records, with a pair seen consistently on the west side of Arran throughout December. In 2021, there were at least 15 records early in the year, but with no evidence for successful breeding on the isle. Numbers have been trending up, which gives us a clear idea of how the expansion of the species is happening across parts of Scotland. It is estimated that there are currently about 150 breeding pairs across the country.

A similar success story begins in East Scotland

A third reintroduction of 85 individuals followed on the east coast between 2007 and 2012, carried out by the RSPB. And in 2013, for the first time in almost 200 years, the species bred successfully one male chick at a secret location in Fife. As it happens for other raptors, White-tailed Eagles can also be victims of persecution and shooting. Importantly, in 2020, a pair bred successfully at Mar Lodge Estate, near Braemar. This pair comprised a female believed to be from the West Coast, and a male that was released in Fife in 2011. However, this spring when I was in Mar Lodge carrying out surveys for the Estate, I did not record any individuals there. If the successful reintroduction from the West Coast teaches us anything, it is that populations of this species are initially slow to expand and increase in numbers, potentially taking several years or even decades until their populations show significant growth.

The Cairngorms National Park is surely becoming a stronghold, with five recorded territorial pairs in 2020, of which three had successfully fledged young (one of them being the Mar Lodge chick). This year, a chick was born in Balmoral Estate (a previous failed nesting attempt occurred there in 2017). Also this year, a pair was recorded at Loch Lomond from March onward, searching for suitable nest sites. This led to an exclusion zone being set up at the site. This was the first sighting at Loch Lomond in over 100 years and marks a milestone in the expansion of the species across Scotland, near the more populated centres.

In Orkney, a pair of White-tailed Eagle nested on RSPB Scotland’s Hoy nature reserve in 2015 for the first time in nearly 150 years (last pair nested in 1783!). The birds failed to breed until 2018 when they fledged two chicks. In 2019, the same pair fledged two chicks but one died. And in 2020, two more chicks fledged. In 2021, there was sad news that the male was missing but the female is still there and with one of their juveniles.

The future of the White-tailed Eagle in Scotland looks promising as the species continues to expand across the country. These are sociable birds that can gather together, in small groups, at roosts or around a food source. In April 2021, a wildlife tour guide at Kinloch, Isle of Mull, got lucky and observed 16 birds gathered!

This year, I myself had two sightings. Both were quite close up. One was a pair seen in April at the shores of Loch Torridon. Another was of an individual spotted flying at short distance from me on the north-eastern side of the Cairngorms. This is truly a majestic species. When seen flying close-up, the size appears absolutely fantastic, a sight to behold, a memory that lasts.

This is a true apex predator that was once on the brink of extinction but has been saved thanks to the sustained efforts of many conservationists. A word of appreciation for their outstanding work.

And when near the coast, keep an eye on the skies!

Paulo Bessa

Findhorn, Moray


Photos: Pair on rocks © Brian Couper, pair flying © Helen Logan
Isle of Arran information credit: James Cassels