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]