White-tailed Eagle Comeback Scheme for Scotland


White-tailed Eagle (photo: Bill Jackson).

Concern about dangers to Britain's biggest birds of prey from wind farms came as 15 White-tailed Eagle chicks were flown to Scotland for a new comeback scheme. The youngsters, when able to fly, will be released in about two months in the first phase of a new project to restore this species to eastern Scotland, where it was wiped out by human persecution almost 200 years ago. Up to 80 more are to be released over the next four years and the new population will face a new hazard - if they happen to move into areas well stocked with wind turbines.

This bird of prey, with a wing span of up to 8ft, is thought to have been widely distributed throughout the British Isles 5,000 years ago, occurring around coasts, along large rivers and on lakes and marshes with open water.

White-tailed Eagle (photo: Steve Williams).

However, their size limits their aerial manoeuvrability and evidence is emerging in Norway - the country of origin of all the birds released in Scotland - that they are liable to be in trouble if occupying the same areas as wind farms.

UK-born Eddie Chapman, now resident in Norway and one of its most active birders, reports that over the last ten months four more White-tailed Eagles have been killed by turbines at Smøla, a group of islands about 400 miles up the coast from Bergen. That brings the total to 13 since the 68-turbine wind farm there became fully operational in 2005.

The conflict between turbines and eagles is not disputed by Statkraft, the Norwegian state-owned enterprise aiming to be "a European leader in environment-friendly energy", which went ahead with the Smøla scheme despite environmental groups warning of this danger. Last October the company admitted: "Since start-up of Phase 2 of Smøla Wind Farm in August 2005, a total of ten White-tailed Eagles have collided with rotor blades on the turbines and died. This is a serious problem and Statkraft is doing everything in its power to find a solution to this situation."

Dr Rowena Langston, senior research biologist with Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which strongly opposed the Smøla project, said there was evidence that the eagles faced particular risks during their breeding season. The birds killed so far have been both adults and juveniles. "Smøla had the world's highest concentrations of breeding White-tailed Eagles and their fortunes have been hit hard in the two years since the turbines started turning. Just as significant is the disappearance of other White-tailed Eagles, seemingly unwilling to return to their traditional breeding site. Before the wind farm was built, there were at least 16 nesting pairs where the wind farm stands. We think as many as nine of those territories could have been abandoned with no evidence that the displaced birds are nesting elsewhere on Smøøa."

Birds that have moved away may well face similar problems in future as more wind farms are planned in the growing international drive to produce clean power in a bid to counter global warming by reducing carbon emissions. Now the RSPB, which is much involved in the Scottish White-tailed Eagle re-introduction scheme, is anxious that the Smøla "mistake" is not repeated in the UK. Particularly in mind is the controversial proposal to build 181 turbines, each towering 462ft over a huge area of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The RSPB fears not only dangers to eagles but also to migrating swans and geese, nesting wading birds and the peatland habitat generally.

Dr Mark Avery, RSPB Conservation Director, said: "The fate of White-tailed Eagles on Smøla shows just how much harm poorly sited wind farms can do. It is a timely reminder for those now deciding whether to allow a much bigger wind farm on the Isle of Lewis. Wind energy can make a hugely significant contribution to tackling climate change and many in the renewables industry have been working with us and others to ensure that turbines are built where damage to wildlife is minimised."

The RSPB is also helping Norwegian conservationists seeking to get rid of Smøla wind farm by means of the Bern Convention on European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, a legal agreement on wildlife protection signed by all nations of the Council of Europe. They will urge the convention's Standing Committee to consider the problems posed by the turbines with a view to questioning the legality of the wind farm and recommending its removal.

Meanwhile the arrival of the young eagles for the release scheme was warmly welcomed, Scottish environment minister Michael Russell commenting: "The White-tailed Eagle is a magnificent, graceful bird, whose reintroduction to the east of Scotland I was delighted to approve. The equivalent project on the west coast has proved to be extremely popular amongst visitors and contributes approximately £1.5 million annually to the economy on Mull. I look forward to the east coast reintroduction resulting in similar benefits and further enhancing the area's biodiversity."

Ian Jardine, Chief Executive of the advisory body, Scottish Natural Heritage, added: "The White-tailed Eagle is an important part of Scotland's biodiversity. SNH has believed, since we were involved with the original west coast reintroduction, that this bird should be restored to Scotland's natural heritage. These chicks represent another step forward in restoring what was lost to all of us. Releasing these birds on the east coast, where many people in Scotland live, means that in years to come thousands of people will be able to enjoy watching these birds."

Written by: Brian Unwin