The South Scotland Golden Eagle Project, which proposes to translocate eagles from the Highlands to boost the tiny eagle population in Dumfries & Galloway and the Borders, has been awarded over £1.3 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (see here).
This means the project can now move forward by submitting a licence application to SNH and, if the licence is approved, the plan is to start collecting eaglets from Highland nests during the 2018 breeding season, with the intention of releasing between five and ten young eagles in southern Scotland each year until 2022.
We’ve blogged about this project before, back in 2015 when the planned translocation was first announced. We had mixed feelings about it then (see here) and we still do now.
On the one hand, the south Scotland golden eagle population is on its knees and has been for some time (see here). If nobody intervenes, the last few pairs remain extremely isolated and vulnerable and there’s every chance this sub-population will disappear. For this reason, intervention by way of releasing more birds seems like a good idea.
However, unless the cause of this sub-population’s decline has been identified and removed or sufficiently reduced, it is absolutely pointless bringing in new birds that are likely to suffer the same fate.
One of the biggest constraints on golden eagle population recovery in southern Scotland is persecution. Raptor persecution in southern Scotland has definitely not been removed, nor sufficiently reduced. It has been argued (by Scottish Land & Estates) that raptor persecution in southern Scotland ‘may have been an historical factor’ in the demise of the south Scotland eagle population, but apparently it isn’t an issue any more. Unfortunately, the evidence doesn’t support that claim. Here’s a map from the 2008 Golden Eagle Conservation Framework showing the conservation status of golden eagles in Scotland (red = unfavourable conservation status), overlaid with ten years of raptor persecution data (all species, 2005-2015) gleaned from ‘official’ persecution maps. Does it look to you like raptor persecution isn’t an issue in southern Scotland?
The 2014 SNH-commissioned report on the status of golden eagles in southern Scotland also identified several areas where persecution is an ongoing concern, including the Lowther Hills, the Lammermuirs and the Moorfoots (all driven grouse moor areas – what a surprise), and stated that persecution needed to be brought under control in those regions if golden eagles were to thrive in southern Scotland once again.
On the basis of this evidence, we would argue that translocating golden eagles to southern Scotland in the immediate future is not a wise decision. But, there is a counter argument. Young golden eagles travelling around the Highlands during their early years are just as likely to be illegally killed in the north as they are in south Scotland (e.g. see here). So, if the risk is just as great in the north, why not bring those eagles to the south, where, under the intense public attention that this project will generate, the young birds may actually have a better chance of survival because the would-be raptor killers will know they’re under close scrutiny (each eagle will be satellite-tagged). Although that’s assuming the young birds remain in southern Scotland during their formative years – we know that a young eagle that fledged from the Dumfries & Galloway nest in 2015 ‘disappeared’ on a grouse moor in the Monadhliaths just after her first birthday in 2016 (see here).
Others have commented that prey availability will pose a problem for an increasing eagle population in the south, but a recent report (here) has shown that ‘the region possesses a sufficient prey base to sustain a breeding population of golden eagles of 12-16 pairs’. Here is a photo of a young golden eagle at the one remaining productive breeding site in the Borders. Judging by the nest contents, prey availability doesn’t appear to be a problem.
Whatever the concerns may be, it looks like this project is going ahead (pending the licence application) and let’s be honest, at least the primary motivation for this scheme is NOT to appease the grouse-shooting lobby, unlike the ludicrous Hen Harrier brood meddling scheme in England, but to help improve the sustainability of this important sub-population. Our misgivings haven’t yet been allayed, but we still have fingers crossed for its success because inaction (i.e. waiting for illegal raptor persecution to stop) is no longer an option if this sub-pop is to survive.