White-tailed Eagle reintroduction project celebrates 100th breeding pair

The 100th pair of nesting White-tailed Eagles has now established itself on Hoy, Orkney. Photo: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com).
The 100th pair of nesting White-tailed Eagles has now established itself on Hoy, Orkney. Photo: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com).
BBC Springwatch has revealed a significant milestone in the White-tailed Eagle reintroduction project, as the programme announced the 100th breeding pair on Hoy, Orkney.

It has been 40 years since the species was reintroduced to Scotland, and the revelation that the magnificent birds have reached the important milestone of 100 breeding pairs was revealed by Iolo Williams on this evening’s edition of BBC Springwatch. The 100th pair nested on Hoy, and are the first White-tailed Eagles to nest in Orkney for 142 years.

This milestone comes in a year of significant anniversaries for the reintroduction scheme. It is 40 years since the first young White-tailed Eagles from Norway were released on Rum in 1975 and 30 years since the first wild chick fledged on Mull in 1985.

The project – run by RSPB Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) – released 82 young eagles over 10 years on Rum. It marked the return of White-tailed Eagle – colloquially know as 'sea eagle' – to Scotland after an absence of nearly 60 years. More young eagles were released under the programme in Wester Ross between 1993 and 1998, while further releases took place in Fife from 2007 to 2012 through a partnership with Forestry Commission Scotland.

White-tailed Eagle became extinct in the UK due to widespread persecution. They bred in England and the Isle of Man and across Scotland and Ireland, but by 1900 only a handful of eyries remained, and all were in Scotland. The last known nesting attempt of wild origin was on Skye in 1916, and in 1918 the last British White-tailed Eagle was shot in Shetland.

The sea eagles on Hoy have been seen in the area every spring and summer since 2013 and are both thought to be young birds between four and five years old. This was their first known nesting attempt, and although they were unsuccessful in raising chicks that year the pair have gained vital experience for future nesting attempts.

However, as shown on Springwatch, this historic eyrie is an important step for expansion of the ranges of the species in Scotland and of great cultural significance to Orkney. The importance of eagles can be seen at the Neolithic ‘Tomb of the Eagles’ on South Ronaldsay, which contained the bones of up to 100 people and 14 White-tailed Eagles. A beautiful carving of a sea eagle on a Pictish stone found at the Knowe of Burrian can be seen at the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall.

Stuart Housden, Director of RSPB Scotland, said: “The success of bringing White-tailed Eagles back to Scotland over the last 40 years owes a great deal to the partners involved, as well as the support of Police Scotland, landowners, farmers, local community groups and organisations, and to Norway who gifted the young eagles. It’s fantastic to see how these magnificent birds have captured the public’s imagination, and that the sight of a sea eagle soaring in the Scottish sky is no longer a thing of the past. We’re delighted to celebrate the 100th breeding pair with BBC Springwatch.”

Susan Davies, SNH’s chief executive, said: “What a great conservation achievement – everyone in Scotland should be proud of this! Now these spectacular birds are back, bringing new tourism opportunities to fragile areas. Given their geographical spread, there's growing chances of seeing these magnificent birds in your local area. It’s particularly wonderful that the birds have spread so far that we have the 100th pair nesting in Orkney, now restored to an area where sea eagles reigned so many years ago. This is one of nature's brilliant success stories.”