National golden eagle survey 2015: low occupancy on Eastern Highland grouse moors remains a concern

Every year a proportion of the Scottsh golden eagle population is surveyed by licensed experts from the Scottish Raptor Study Group. This phenomenal voluntary effort (currently 373 home ranges [approx 53% of known ranges] monitored by 150 eagle experts) provides invaluable data that are submitted to the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme and are used to inform conservation policy at local, regional and national level.

In addition to this annual monitoring, a national survey is periodically undertaken with both paid and voluntary experts in an effort to visit every known home range throughout Scotland.

Photo by Mark Hamblin

The latest national golden eagle survey took place in 2015 and the interim results were announced in November 2016. The main headline was that overall, the national population had increased by 15%, rising from 442 pairs recorded during the last national survey in 2003, to 508 territorial pairs in 2015, and the species was now considered to be in favourable conservation status.

This was excellent and welcome news, but as we pointed out at the time, the headline masked a more sinister situation. Although the national population had surpassed 500 territorial pairs, the magic number needed to upgrade the species’ national conservation status from ‘unfavourable’ to ‘favouable’, it was still well below the estimated capacity of 700 pairs. This meant that approx 200 pairs of golden eagles were still ‘missing’.

Unsurprisingly, the national survey revealed that golden eagle populations in the driven grouse moor areas of eastern and southern Scotland were still being suppressed and had not shown any significant sign of recovery since the previous national survey in 2003. Illegal persecution has been identified time and time again as the main constraint on population growth in these regions.

The formal scientific peer-reviewed results of the 2015 national survey were published last week in the journal Bird Study [Hayhow, D., Benn, S., Stevenson, A., Stirling-Aird, P. and Eaton, M. (2017). Status of golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos in Britain in 2015. Bird Study].

Unfortunately publishing restrictions do not permit us to upload the full paper (you’ll have to subscribe to Bird Study for full access) but here is the abstract:

[UPDATE: This paper is now fully available online, free access, thanks to the BTO. Click here]

In additon to details about the continued low occupancy on grouse moors in the eastern Highlands, the paper also provides information that dispels a couple of myths that are frequently claimed as ‘facts’ by the SGA and co.

You might remember the SGA giving evidence to a parliamentary committee earlier this year where they claimed that “the Cairngorms National Park held the highest density of eagles in the world“. They might want to have a look at this map. This is the distribution of pairs of golden eagles in 2015 and shows the densities of occupied home ranges by 10 x 10 km squares. As you can see, the highest densities of golden eagles were recorded in the Outer Hebrides and on Mull (no grouse moors in these areas):

Another commonly-heard myth, usually trotted out to support calls for the ‘control’ of white-tailed eagles, is that re-introduced white-tailed eagles are displacing golden eagles and taking over their territories/nest sites, even though recent research has demonstrated that these two species partition their habitat and prey preferences in western Scotland. In this latest paper, the authors comment:

Although we have not assessed this in the current study, we report increases in golden eagles numbers in regions such as the Hebridean Islands in which there has been a rapid increase in white-tailed eagles (Holling 2016), which suggests that, at least at current population levels, there has been no major impact“.

The authors do acknowledge that the white-tailed eagle population is predicted to continue its expansion and this may, potentially, create competition between the two species in the future but right now, based on the currently available data, there is no evidence to suggest this is a population-level concern.

The main current threat to Scottish golden eagles is the same as it was following the previous national survey, fourteen years ago. And that is illegal persecution on some driven grouse moors in the eastern Highlands and south Scotland. The grouse-shooting representatives can continue to deny it, but this latest paper is yet another nail in the coffin of this filthy industry.

9 thoughts on “National golden eagle survey 2015: low occupancy on Eastern Highland grouse moors remains a concern”

  1. Given the low occupancy on these grouse moors & the known loss of immature eagles [ verified by tagging ], together with the number of immatures attempting to hold territories, the truth is obvious;
    Destruction of all age groups of Golden eagles on these driven grouse moors is at a staggeringly high level & is draining the Scottish population.
    To say nothing of the routine destruction of other large raptors.

    Keep up the pressure !

  2. The shooting community also claims, even in England, that Hen Harriers are far more abundant on grouse moors than perceived by raptor specialists. The common explanation they share among themselves, and occasionally in public, is that raptor surveyors and scientists just aren’t competent enough to find them! We all know this is utter tosh, but what can we do when ‘distinguished’ Members of Parliament, and officials of the shooting organisations, are prepared to lie through their teeth at every opportunity, as several did in this year’s Westminster Hall debate? It makes our task of convincing sceptics, politicians and the general public even more difficult.

  3. Just throwing this out there, but would it be possible for raptor workers to work with estates more? It always seems that there is a cloak and dagger approach. Surely the way forward is to find people that are prepared to be civilised enough to work with estate staff and not against them.

    1. Sad to say this but my own experience during upland survey work does not bode well for this approach.
      Also a friend of mine was contracted to carry our species surveys in the Peak District several years ago on behalf of Moors for the Future – one game keeper maintained long distance ‘surveillance’ on him most of the day. On another estate the Estate Manager refused him access saying that an ecologist would enter his moorland “over his dead body”!
      Some grouse moor managers and gamekeepers loathe conservationists.

      Hence the cloak and dagger approach.

      1. Would like to think its not impossible to surpass but will take a lot of time to get beyond the feelings that a) all keepers want to kill everything and b) all conservationists want to stop shooting….and never the twain shall meet.

        1. Jenny, I’m afraid that is a pious statement which avoids reality. There is a significant element among conservationists (and many members of the public) who will never be happy at the continuation of recreational wildlife killing. I say that as one of them. The best situation we can hope to achieve under present social circumstances is for the shooting community, gamekeepers in particular, to obey the law of the land. Surely that is a reasonable and responsible demand? All the ‘noise’ surrounding the debate, through the use of deceit and denial on the part of the shooting organisations, is proof enough that we are dealing not only with criminals, but associated individuals and bodies who are happy to tacitly support criminality. This is a straight forward battle, and we have a moral duty to keep pursuing it until decency and civilisation prevail.

  4. Of course there is no competition between Golden and White Tailed eagles – everyone in the country knows one eats grouse and the other eats lambs, sheep and small children.

  5. The situation here may actually be worse than it looks since Eagle species often have preferred areas that draw a higher than average % of immatures than will be drawn to other areas. This is a big problem with Bonelli’s eagle in Spain & may be mirrored in Scotland with Golden eagles.

    Keep up the pressure !

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