14/02/2015
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Fourth national Golden Eagle survey announced for Scotland

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Golden Eagle numbers appear to have stabilised but the levels of population change from region to region. Photo: AlbertHerring (commons.wikimedia.org).
Golden Eagle numbers appear to have stabilised but the levels of population change from region to region. Photo: AlbertHerring (commons.wikimedia.org).
Scotland’s most iconic bird will be the subject of a fourth national survey to see how its population is faring.

The six-month survey of Golden Eagles is co-funded by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and RSPB Scotland will take place this year. Licensed surveyors from the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science will collaborate with the Scottish Raptor Study Group (SRSG), and will spend time recording the numbers of the majestic species, known for their spectacular undulating flight displays in spring.

All of the Golden Eagles in Great Britain are found in Scotland except for one solitary male in the Lake District. Much of the population is in the west Highlands and islands of Scotland.

Long term monitoring has shown that, although the Golden Eagle population has remained stable, there is a variation in numbers across different areas. The most recent survey in 2003 revealed that the overall number of breeding pairs had increased since 1992 by 20, to 442. However, there were declines of 24 per cent and 28 per cent in the north central and south central Highlands respectively, since the first survey in 1982.

Dr Daniel Hayhow from the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science highlighted said: “This national survey is really important to the conservation efforts for Golden Eagles. These birds don’t breed until they are four or five years old, so having accurate numbers of breeding pairs will help us assess how the population is faring.”

Researchers are keen to find out whether conservation efforts over the last 12 years have led to an increase in breeding numbers across the country. The survey will cover all current known Golden Eagle hunting and nesting areas, referred to as ‘home ranges’. Areas where the species has previously inhabited will also be assessed to check for any signs of their return.
Licenced surveyors will visit every possible home range three times, looking for signs of the species' presence and check if pairs are breeding, and finally to see if they’ve been successful in producing chicks.

Golden Eagles were once common across Great Britain but disappeared from Wales and England by the mid-19th century due to widespread persecution. Part of the surviving population in Scotland suffered a sharp decline in breeding success during the 1960s due to organochlorine pesticides which caused mass infertility and eggshell thinning.

Although numbers of these majestic birds have slowly recovered they continue to suffer from a series of challenges, such as changes in upland management and afforestation in some areas. Wildlife crime is also an issue: between 2003 and 2013, 17 Golden Eagles have been confirmed illegally killed in Scotland.

Andrew Stevenson, SNH ornithological adviser, commented: “Although around half the Golden Eagle population is monitored every year by the SRSG, broader national surveys are vital to fill the gaps on the status of the whole population. We use the results to make decisions about the future conservation of Golden Eagle.

"Golden eagles face a range of issues. Persecution is a major concern in some areas, but poor quality habitat with reduced prey is also a worry in parts of the west Highlands. Intriguingly, there has been a suggestion in recent years that some pairs have learned to cope with fairly extensive forests, despite it being a factor in some range losses historically. The potential risks from renewables have also increased as the industry grows."
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