SCOTLAND'S breeding population of sea eagles has soared to its highest number in more than 30 years, wildlife experts have found.
Figures from a 2007 survey show there are now 42 territorial breeding pairs of the UK's biggest raptors - the highest number since the species was reintroduced to Scotland in 1975.
The survey by RSPB Scotland found an increase of six breeding pairs since 2006. Experts said there had also been a record number of chicks produced in 2007.
Since the beginning of the year, 24 successful broods have produced a total of 34 young birds.
RSPB Scotland estimates there are around 200 individual sea eagles resident in Scotland - this includes young birds that have yet to find a mate.
The core population is found on Skye, Mull and the Western Isles.
The species is subject to ongoing monitoring by the Sea Eagle Project team, a multi-agency initiative involving the RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry Commission Scotland.
Sea eagles were first brought back from extinction by a reintroduction programme on the island of Rum from 1975-83.
A further programme was implemented on Wester Ross between 1993 and 1998.
This year breeding pairs have established territories as far south as the Argyll islands and west on to the mainland in the Lochaber area of the Highlands.
The final phase of the reintroduction programme involves introducing chicks taken from nests in Norway to the east coast. Around 15 chicks were released in Fife at the beginning of August and up to 20 young birds from Norway will be released each year for the next four years.
Jeremy Wilson, head of research at RSPB Scotland and chairman of the Sea Eagle Project Team said: "It has been a fantastic year for these stunning birds, which are now firmly established as a totem of the incredible natural heritage that Scotland plays host to.
"This breeding population is likely to continue to rise in coming years as juveniles from the reintroduction programmes reach sexual maturity, find vacant territories and pair up with a mate, with which they remain faithful for life.
"Eventually, as they continue to spread out, and west and east coast populations meet, we can expect to see these majestic birds all around Scotland's coast, bringing this fantastic and inspiring spectacle to people throughout the country."
Moira Baptie, environment manager for Forestry Commission Scotland, said: "We are delighted to play our part in restoring this iconic bird to its former range in Scotland."
A HISTORY OF PERSECUTION
SEA eagles were once a familiar sight throughout Britain and their presence has been recorded in art and local folklore.
They were firmly established around Britain in the Dark Ages before AD1000, but as the ancient woodlands were felled and wetlands drained to make way for farms, the land suitable for survival declined.
However, the birds were still quite plentiful in the more remote areas of Scotland and Ireland, but persecution was a serious threat.
Generous bounties were offered for those who successfully hunted the birds in Orkney and Shetland, and by 1900 a handful remained.
The final demise was precipitated by the Victorian passion for taxidermy and egg-collecting, as well as the spread of sheep farming in the western Highlands. Shepherds used poisoned baits and improved firearms to kill the birds.
The last known breeding attempt by indigenous sea eagles was on Skye in 1916. Two years later, the only surviving British sea eagle, an ageing albino female, was shot in Shetland. It was to be almost 70 years before sea eagles once again bred in Scotland.