Big tourism swoop for Scotland as sea eagles project hits its target
WILDLIFE tourism in Scotland is expected to receive a multi-million pound boost as a successful project reintroducing sea eagles across the country is completed tomorrow.
The final six fledglings are due to be released under the scheme at a secret location in Fife.
Their arrival takes the total number of sea eagles reintroduced on the east coast of Scotland in the past six years to 85, meeting the programme’s target of between 80 and 100 birds.
It marks the end of a nationwide reintroduction scheme which started on the west coast with the release of 82 sea eagles on the Isle of Rum in 1975.
There are now nearly 60 breeding pairs on the west coast, including 15 which have spread from Rum to the larger island of Mull.
A recent study revealed that the birds’ presence on Mull now generates at least £5 million a year, with visitors spending money on ferries, accommodation and food in the area.
With raptors usually starting to breed at the age of five, the first chicks to be born on the east coast under the project are expected in the coming months.
If all continues to go well, project leader RSPB Scotland hopes that sea eagle populations will spread across the country – bringing tourist money to help support Scottish communities as well as wildlife.
Rhian Evans, east Scotland Sea Eagle project officer, said: “This is an exciting time in the project. The birds which were first released in the east are now reaching the stage when they are expected to breed, so we are hoping to start seeing the first nests on the east coast soon.
“They are very sociable birds, and we hope that the populations from west and east will mix throughout the country.
“It’s early days to predict how we can manage tourism in the east, it will depend on where they nest and how we can work [on letting visitors see the birds] without disturbing them, but we’re looking at what’s happened in Mull, where the birds bring £5m a year to the local economy through tourism.”
The last six birds had originally been due to be released yesterday but the event was delayed by torrential rain which would have put them off taking flight. Ms Evans added: “We hope to release them at about 11am to give them time to get their bearings before it gets dark.”
The sea eagle, or white-tailed eagle, is the biggest bird of prey in Europe. Numbers plummeted in the 19th century through a combination of widespread poisoning and shooting by gamekeepers and the actions of egg collectors. By 1918, the birds had been wiped out in Scotland.
The successful reintroduction is the result of decades of work by conservationists who have been releasing young birds taken from nests in Norway.
The project has sparked controversy, however, with landowners claiming the eagles were feeding on lambs and poultry.
Last year, a row erupted between RSPB Scotland and Scottish gamekeepers over claims that sea eagles might prey on young children.
The Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association called for a public inquiry into the reintroduction scheme after a Perthshire clergyman said he was attacked by a sea eagle while trying to protect his prize-winning goose.
Research refutes such claims and RSPB Scotland maintains that sea eagles generally eat fish and seabirds, and occasionally carrion, rabbits and other small mammals.
Environment minister Stewart Stevenson said the sea eagles’ return was “important for Scotland’s growing nature-based tourism industry”.
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