National survey reveals golden eagles still ‘missing’ from Eastern Highland grouse moors

The results of a national survey of golden eagle territories have revealed mixed fortunes for this iconic species.

The survey, undertaken in 2015 by licensed experts from the Scottish Raptor Study Group and the RSPB, was a follow up to the previous national survey, undertaken in 2003.

The recent survey shows an overall 15% increase in the golden eagle population, rising from 442 pairs to 508 pairs. This is very welcome news, especially as the golden eagle can now be considered to be in ‘favourable conservation status’ nationally (to reach this status at least 500 golden eagle territories should be occupied by pairs).

However, don’t be fooled. Whilst a favourable national conservation status sounds like everything’s going just fine for the golden eagle, it masks a more sinister picture of what’s taking place regionally.

As in 2003, golden eagles are still doing very well in western Scotland, and there have been recent improvements in parts of central Scotland (although the loss of eight young eagles in five years is a huge concern), but the population is still being suppressed in parts of eastern Scotland, just as it was in 2003.

In the 2015 survey, less than one third of the traditional ‘home ranges’ in this area were occupied by a pair of eagles and no eagles were recorded at all in over 30% of them, despite the fact that these should be very productive landscapes for these birds. Many of the vacant territories in this area are on ground managed intensively for driven grouse shooting and in recent years, four eagles fitted with satellite tags have been found illegally killed in the central and eastern Highlands (see here, here, here and here).

Let’s also not forget that the national golden eagle population should be over 700 breeding pairs. In that context, a 2015 national population of 508 pairs means that around 200 pairs are still ‘missing’.

We’ll look forward to reading the peer-reviewed paper about these survey results in due course because that should provide a far greater level of detail than the overview provided in today’s press release. For instance, we’ll particularly be looking at the age structure of the 2015 breeding population (assuming it’s been recorded). It’s well known that in recent years, in some areas, golden eagle breeding pairs have comprised adults and juveniles/sub-adults. That isn’t ‘normal’ for a healthy population and is actually indicative of a serious underlying problem. Breeding pairs should comprise two adults. Alarm bells should be ringing when you see a juvenile/sub-adult as part of a breeding pair because this suggests there are insufficient adults available to breed.

[Map shows the regional conservation status of the golden eagle (following the 2003 national survey): green = favourable; amber = unfavourable (marginal); red = unfavourable (definitive). Source: Golden Eagle Conservation Framework]

17 thoughts on “National survey reveals golden eagles still ‘missing’ from Eastern Highland grouse moors”

  1. Await declarations of unmitigated success and more proof, if we need it, that grouse moors are the perfect environment for raptors.

  2. Maybe it should also be noted that England has no Golden Eagles despite there being suitable habitat available. Scottish eagles heading south are finding it almost impossible to survive crossing the border areas for some reason.

  3. You cant turn this in to a negative.
    There has been some bad news items, but definitely reducing.
    As ive said before, Hen Harriers seem to the only raptor in decline (probably due to persecution)
    Buzzards for some other natural reason.
    You cant have it both ways.
    Lack of eagles in the East Coast
    Plenty of Eagles in the East coast to take over to Ireland to be persecuted and starved.
    I live beside 2 of the traditionally worst east coast estates and have seen a definite improvement form 2011.
    This is plain and simply a good news story so why take till the end of 2016 to put it out there.

    1. We haven’t “turned this in to a negative” – it already is a negative!

      Sure, there has been progress in some areas, as we allude to in our opening sentence. This is great news and we applaud those enlightened landowners involved.

      However, there is no escaping from the fact that golden eagles have failed to recover in the Eastern Highlands, 12 years on from the last national survey. How you can see that as a positive is beyond us.

      And there is also no escaping from the fact that the national population is still approx 200 pairs below its potential.

      This survey was undertaken during 2015. It’s no surprise that the findings haven’t been reported until the following year – this is standard for national survey results – there’s a huge amount of data to check, standardise and analyse (3 visits per territory, collected by a large number of surveyors) and then write up.

  4. “It’s well known that in recent years, in some areas, golden eagle breeding pairs have comprised adults and juveniles/sub-adults. That isn’t ‘normal’ for a healthy population and is actually indicative of a serious underlying problem. Breeding pairs should comprise two adults. Alarm bells should be ringing when you see a juvenile/sub-adult as part of a breeding pair because this suggests there are insufficient adults available to breed.”
    This applies to most if not all species of raptor as well as other species of birds. As is pointed out, such age disparity among breeding populations indicates that some breeding adults are missing from the overall population, and one has to assume they haven’t decided to take a Mediterranean packaged holiday. In such a well studied population the only viable explanation is that something, or someone is removing adults from the population, and who would you think is doing that. Most people viewing breeding golden eagles from afar would feel privileged just to see them. Some people, a minority would want to kill them.

    1. I know RPUK has commented on this before but is is only an average. It can’t be used as a rule.
      I live between two Golden Eagle territories on Mull. Two years ago the old pair of the nearest nesting pair died (the male was I suspect quite old). The next year a new pair took over, an adult male and a sub-adult female (for the benefit of the doubt perhaps the female was an adult retaining some sub-adult plumage). The next year a totally new pair took over and both were about 2 years old (David Sexton agrees on the ages). This is not an area with raptor persecution and has good habitat with plenty of Red Deer and sheep to eat and low numbers of Red Grouse and introduced Mountain Hares.

      1. I realised i may be looking at this too locally.
        If it is a classic source and sink situation; wandering west Scotland juveniles could be being killed in such large numbers over the sink areas of the intensely managed grouse moors, there are not enough young adults to take over vacated territories throughout Scotland. If that could be proven through new technologies (probably sooner rather than later), it is hard to imagine how driven grouse shooting could survive the scrutiny.

        1. I remember a RSPB staff member referring to traps for what must be eagle sized crows on some of the grouse moors. Then there was the jar found on Moy estate with the rings from four golden eagles in it. Without the persecution that must still be severe given the big discrepancies between grouse shooting and non shooting grouse moors imagine where we could be re golden eagles? They could naturally move into the Scottish lowlands, and a bigger pool of birds from which to stock population boosting and full reintroduction schemes for the southern uplands, Northern England, Wales, South west of England etc. Utterly scunnersome.

  5. I’ll give you another obvious negative – the lack of recovery by the SW Scotland birds – a tiny non expanding population with managed grouse moors all over its uplands. ..but not where the handful clings on…I watched in amazement as some tweed clad chaps told a public meeting about the proposed GE reintroduction down here that any released birds would starve..Ive monitored eagles in NW Scotland and the Western Isles…if they can live and breed there then SW Scotland should be a doddle… why arent they expanding in this modern, enlightened world of game management?…[A. see the archived persecution lists opposite].

  6. I doubt there will be any eagles in England until the Scottish population increases, causing some to push out and move , Lakeland was, a very long long time ago a good place for them, many crags are named so. Perhaps human disturbance now could put them off, any area that have them should be very proud and do their best to protect them. The only one I ever saw in Cumbria was about 25 years ago near Brotherswater.

  7. What a sad, sad state of affairs when a 15% increase will lead to complacency that all is well for the golden eagle population. Just look at that map and consider that the eagle population is squeezed into basically half the land area of Scotland. Just look at that red splurge across southern Scotland – what does it represent, two pairs? The headline, as featured on BBC News, denies the reality of their distribution and the health of that population – which is the real story which needs to be told.

  8. We need to buy a big Estate, come on RSPB, get your wallet out and an appeal made, theres plenty of estates to choose from.

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