South Scotland Golden Eagle Project receives £1.3M lottery funding

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.

28 thoughts on “South Scotland Golden Eagle Project receives £1.3M lottery funding”

    1. No details available yet. It will depend on many things, not least the conditions of the SNH licence (e.g. eagle SPAs may be out of bounds) and productivity of individual nests assessed during each breeding season.

  1. I wish them every success but I also have my reservations, until all the illegal killings are eliminated completely.

  2. With regards to this map of “incidents” how many prosecutions have there been ? Does this tally with the zero prosecutions you have blogged about re Eagles ? The map clearly shows that the persecution problem is both national and systemic re contempt for wildlife law. Will forward.

  3. Would be nice to an increased population in the southern region. Then there is a chance some of the new birds may head further south into England and repopulate the Lakes where there is suitable habitat. One can live in hope.

  4. I’m surprised that such a project meets the creteria for licencing since the reason for the decline of this population is plain to see for all concerned – killing by keepers.
    I would have thought that Wales would have been a better candidate since driven gouse shooting is thankfully nearly dead there & eagles were historically present.
    The inevitable catalogue of these dead eagles that will result in Scotland & no doubt in northern England, will at least help to push home to the public the real level of criminality in the game shooting industry …… I look forward to seeing all those dead eagle pins in the usual map locations.
    Luckily, tagging is one of our best allies.
    We will win in the end once the grouse industry has finally shot itself in both feet.

    Keep up the pressure !

      1. Wales definitely not best habitat bur similar to west highlands where recruitment is still more than adequate to sustain that population.
        Plenty of winter carrion & huge numbers of corvids etc to rear young on in Wales so I believe that they would do much better there than on the south Scotland killing grounds.
        Would also ensure a safe separate gene pool away from Scotland.

        Keep up the pressure !

  5. Is there a map available of raptor persecution incidents in the north of England? I would be surprised if some birds from the proposed scheme do not go there and the Pennines are dominated by intensively managed grouse moors.

  6. Like you- I have mixed feelings. Having been a volunteer warden at the RSPB Haweswater reserve in the Lakes, it would be great to see this succeed and offer renewed hope for the Lake district too. But the RSPB always took the view that such a re-introduction would not succeed until the persecution had stopped. I am unsure as to how they got round that stipulation for re-introduction projects. As you say, it could be a great idea but it is indeed hard not to have reservations.

      1. No, but there were not enough nearby eagles to fill the vacancy when old eagles died. If a re-introduction scheme had been attempted earlier in Dumfries and Galloway and had been successful earlier there might have been enough recruitment to the Lakes for their survival there. The amount of fell walkers is also thought by some to be a negative influence although i have doubts about that. Mull has both a high level of tourism and a high Golden Eagle population.

  7. I hope they go the whole hog with this – including each tagged eagle having a school(s) linked to it. My four year old nephew is starting to take a strong interest in wildlife. Without any special leading from me he has developed a real passion for seeing a golden eagle. Good luck kid – I was 15 before I saw a buzzard and that was on a German housing estate. Even in Falkirk district smack bang in the Central belt I’m sure eagles could live on the Slamannan plateau and it would be nice to look at the Ochil hills and know there are a pair or two there. Without persecution I’m sure they’d be there already, Northern England would have a growing population and there would be plenty more eyries for younger chicks to speed the process of recolonisation of Wales, South West England etc through official reintroduction schemes. The 1.3 million quid is just to try and compensate for certain people being raptor killing arseholes.

  8. Perhaps the £1.3 million could be spent on a kind of Robo-Raptorcop that clomps around the estates bringing summary justice to the guilty…

  9. Prey availability… There are enough rabbits just on Cuckoo’s Bridge roundabout in Dumfries to keep an eagle so fat it would have to walk everywhere. It is the bastards with the shotguns and poisons, farmers and gamekeepers, that is the problem. And the cops do bugger all to try and stop them. Actually they do bugger all in general. Come to that, to do bugger all would mean them working a bit harder. Bugger all would be a step up.

  10. I think the scheme is well worth a go, the eagles taken (I presume) will be from nest, that have hatched two chicks but only have a remote chance of fledging both. A chance with a radio tag and tracking to either survive and help the southern population into the future, or fail perhaps (!) at the hands or the deeds of someone but with the hope that failure will bring more pressure on those that causeing the problems.
    I watched a couple of eagles in the southern uplands this year and the feeling of awe that I had should be far more available for other to enjoy. I was also at the Hawswater site many years ago when one of the birds tracked back down the valley over the hide then proceeded to dig out a clutch of fully fledge ring ouzels on the fell nearest to us at the same time as a fox approached what was going on and after a stand off the bird took off over our heads back to the nest. Its still one of my best wildlife experiances
    Great work on the site, keep it up, thanks

  11. Persecution of Raptors including Golden Eagles, needs to be addressed throughout Scotland. It would help if there was more open disclosure of known Raptor Persecution Data by the authorities, and with it legislation that is effective in highlighting the main areas of persecution concern.

    1. Speaking of the anti-eagle brigade we have more BS on Sea-Eagles from the latest edition of the “Scottish Farmer” – proving that its not just the gamekeepers who are font of ignorance on these matters

  12. As an animal welfare person, I deprecate the proposal to pinch Golden Eagle nestlings and dump them in such a hostile environment as the Scottish Borders. I wish re-introductionists would stop proposing new schemes, and for them to consider the safety of the poor mammal or bird chosen to thrill the over-zealous, who are ignoring what Red Kites have had to suffer. It could be that the whole issue of bringing back our Birds of Prey to where they once existed, is intractable, as long as the iron grip the game bird shooters have over our countryside, exists. We just do not have the political and Establishment will to change matters, to bring sanctity to long persecuted wildlife. That can come from producing a generation of young people who have been made aware of the atrocity being perpetrated in the name of “sport”, and sustained by our Government claiming that such blood sports are integral to our economy, and in the creation of employment in rural employment black spots. I watched a House of Commons debate yesterday, on animal welfare, and the consensus was that a prison sentence for animal abuse, should be up to five years in prison. Not until such a sentence be made available, and a judiciary come to exist that is definitely not supportive of the illegal killing of our wildlife, then we could see some of the notable shooting elite doing time fort a long time, if they break the law.

    We should consolidate what we have gained, and try to extend our efforts of protecting endangered predatory birds. When observance of the wildlife laws finally arrives in the present day areas of concern. then let conservation efforts be made to bring back Birds of Prey to their former territories where more concern can be effectively shown. We have to pull the animal welfare and conservation groups together, to get a united front against illegal slaughter, and to get the public massively behind us.

    1. I feel similarly but not on a strictly animal welfare but on ethical grounds.
      I don’t disagree with the animal welfare aspect but then anything but veganism is also guilty and i’m not a vegan although i wish i could be.
      For me it is not the individual bird which i worry about it is the concept of moving birds from areas which must be low in persecution (otherwise twins would not survive) to raptor persecution hot spots.
      I thought this was against re-introduction guidelines.
      In the long run this scheme and others could mean the end of driven grouse shooting. Satellite tagged birds will get shot on grouse moors and eventually it will be impossible to deny.
      The morals of using wild birds, protected by law to catch criminals seems highly questionable.

  13. There is still all this rhetoric, that so and so will kill them all.
    If its going to be done, get decent satellite tags that monitor heart beat like a fit bit and immediately transmit when the birds heart stops.
    If it is keepers, it will make it easier to identify what estates and appropriate action can be taken.
    If it is wind turbines etc then at least it can be understood.

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