Tourists go where golden eagles dare

FOR decades it has been a closely guarded secret. But now the nesting area of Europe’s largest concentration of golden eagles is to be revealed to the public.

The first purpose-built golden eagle observatory in Europe is to open this month on Harris – complete with panoramic views, silver birch cladding and a turf roof to help it blend into its surroundings.

The observatory, built at a cost of £10,000 on the North Harris Estate amid the spectacular Harris Hills, will provide a front-row seat for viewing the continent’s biggest golden eagle population.

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It is the first time the location of the raptors’ nests has been made public, but the North Harris Trust (NHT), which commissioned and developed the project, insisted it is not concerned about wildlife crime in the glen, home to 13 nesting golden eagle pairs.

“We feel confident that even though we are attracting people’s attention to breeding eagles’ territory, there won’t be disturbances caused to the birds by persecution,” said North Harris ranger Robin Reid, the project overseer. He added that the eagles in Glen Miavaig nest on sea cliffs almost inaccessible to humans.

Last month, Matthew Gonshaw became the first person in Britain to receive a “wildlife ASBO” banning him from visiting Scotland for ten years during the breeding season after collecting more than 700 eggs from endangered species, including golden eagles and ospreys.

The trust hopes the observatory, funded by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the Scotland Rural Development Programme and the Brown Forbes Memorial Trust, will attract more visitors to the area. The 25,000-acre estate, run by NHT after a community buy-out, attracts around 3,000 visitors a year.

But a similar RSPB project on Mull, where a hide to view white-tailed eagles has been built alongside a satellite tracking project and organised tours, has generated millions for the island’s economy.

An RSPB Scotland spokeswoman said: “This is a great example of a community-led project that is committed to inspiring people about wildlife, something the RSPB strives to do on a daily basis. We wish the observatory and the North Harris Trust every success and hope visitors enjoy the spectacular sight of this majestic bird in its natural environment. Nature-based tourism raises awareness and appreciation of wildlife, and provides economic benefits. Visitors travelling to see Mull’s white-tailed eagles contribute £5 million a year to the local economy. Hopefully, Harris will see similar results.”

There are 442 nesting pairs of golden eagles in Scotland. A satellite tracking project on Harris – part of a Scotland-wide initiative – has also been set up to monitor one of the young golden eagles in the glen.

“We know what adult eagles do once they establish a territory, but they don’t reach maturity until they’re five or six,” said the spokeswoman. “We don’t know much about them when they’re young.”

In 2010, four golden eagles were found illegally poisoned, the highest number since records began 18 years ago. All were young adults trying to establish territories in eastern and south-west Scotland.

Scottish Wildlife Trust director of conservation Jonathan Hughes said: “Golden eagles are one of the great wildlife icons of Scotland, but due to habitat loss and persecution over several centuries they are now confined to sparsely populated moorland, mountain and offshore islands in western Scotland and Cumbria. The North Harris Trust’s observatory project is really inspiring. It will enable a much wider range of people to experience the thrill of seeing golden eagles.”

Robin Reid said he hopes the observatory will raise awareness about golden eagles in Scotland.

“Golden eagles are the last big predator we haven’t hunted to extinction in this country,” he said. “We used to have bears, wolves and lynxes in Scotland. We still have the golden eagle, a spectacular and iconic predator.”