A couple of years ago when walking in the Ochils in central Scotland a large bird of prey with vast rectangular wings loomed into view. It was of such a size that I knew instantly it was a sea eagle, even before bringing it into focus through my binoculars.
A couple of years ago when walking in the Ochils in central Scotland a large bird of prey with vast rectangular wings loomed into view. It was of such a size that I knew instantly it was a sea eagle, even before bringing it into focus through my binoculars. Although I am normally reserved in manner, this surprise sighting placed me in a state of great animation, pointing out the soaring raptor to another hillwalker nearby and thrusting my binoculars into his hands.
Sea eagles do that – they excite and inspire, and this is why RSPB Scotland, working in partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry Commission Scotland, is now gearing up for the next phase of the East of Scotland Sea Eagle Project, which will be looking to maximise the public enjoyment of these magnificent reintroduced birds. The final round of the six-year annual east coast reintroduction programme involving six young eagles from Norway was completed in August with additional funding support this year from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Local Government LEADER. Eighty-five birds have been released in total and the first eagles are now reaching sexual maturity with it being anticipated that the first nesting attempts will occur over the next few years, which according to Rhian Evans, RSPB sea eagle project officer, brings exciting opportunities for businesses and communities.
Rhian says it is now very much a waiting game, and while there are encouraging signs that some of the reintroduced birds are developing pair bonds, it is impossible to predict when and where the first nesting attempts may occur.
“Although the first eagles from the release scheme are now reaching maturity, we know from the west coast that it took nine or ten years for the birds to start breeding,” she says.
Given the experience from Mull, where breeding sea eagles generate an estimated £5m annually for the local economy, the RSPB believes that similar benefits can be achieved in eastern Scotland once the eagles begin to settle. It is hoped that viewing facilities and other associated activities will generate community pride in an area’s breeding sea eagles, as well as bring tangible economic and educational benefits.
“We are now entering an exciting new phase and the RSPB has recruited new staff to liaise with local groups and tourism businesses to highlight the opportunities the eagles may bring,” says Rhian.
So, how have the released sea eagles, or white-tailed eagles as they are also known, fared so far? “The survival rate has been pretty good at 70 per cent, which compares favourably with the west of Scotland release scheme that began in 1975,” says Rhian. “One thing we have found is that the birds often travel a tremendous distance.”
One young bird from last year did a round-Scotland tour in a relatively short time, travelling from near its release site in Fife to Arran and then across to Campbeltown before heading north to Inverness, and then across to the Loch of Strathbeg near Fraserburgh. Another bird sighted at Tentsmuir in east Fife travelled to Mull the following day and was back in Fife 24 hours later.
“Sea eagles are sociable birds and the fact that both east and west coast birds are mixing and interacting is great news as our long-term hope is to have a population that is similar to their former Scottish range and not just confined to specific areas,” says Rhian.
The well-populated east coast of Scotland might not seem the ideal place for eagles, and it’s certainly very different from their remote west coast haunts, but it is actually the perfect place for them, adds Rhian. “Sea eagles frequented this part of Scotland in the past and the rich estuaries provide good feeding. In Norway, sea eagles are often found breeding very close to towns and they are not as shy of humans as golden eagles are.”
While the arrival of sea eagles on the east coast has not been universally welcomed Rhian says the overwhelming reaction from communities has been positive. It now seems only a matter of time before the first home-bred east coast sea eagles will be soaring high above the skies of east and central Scotland.