New paper documents history of eagles in Wales

An important new scientific paper has just emerged documenting the history of golden and white-tailed eagles in Wales.

Published in the journal Conservation Science & Practice, this new paper builds on the earlier, painstaking work of the much missed Richard Evans who, along with colleagues (see here), mapped the historical distribution of eagles across Britain and Ireland.

This latest paper, authored by Cardiff University PhD student Sophie-lee Williams et al, thoroughly evaluates the evidence for both species in Wales and maps their likely core distributions. The authors conclude there is strong evidence that both species were widespread across Wales but fell victim to persecution and haven’t bred there for over 150 years.

This paper is open access which means it is freely available to everyone.

Download it here: Williams et al 2020_Past distribution eagles Wales

The significance of this paper relates to a proposed reintroduction of golden and/or white-tailed eagles to Wales. Many blog readers will recall that this prospect has been on the table for a while and whilst there is still a lot more work to complete before licence applications are submitted, understanding the species’ past historical ranges is important.

Some blog readers may recognise some of the names involved in this latest research. They are part of the Eagle Reintroduction Wales Project (ERWP) (website here) who we blogged about last year when news emerged that a different team was also contemplating an eagle reintroduction in Wales, but apparently without the careful research assessment being undertaken by the Cardiff University team (see here). Fortunately, so far, that alternative approach hasn’t advanced very far (see here and here).

Hopefully it won’t be too long before we see more research results from the ERWP that’ll take us another step closer to restoring these eagles back to Wales.

10 thoughts on “New paper documents history of eagles in Wales”

  1. This is an excellent study and demonstrates the need for ecological histories. This has been a much neglected area of research that is going to be increasingly important when designing re-introductions and the rebuilding of lost and damaged ecosystems.

    1. Carl,
      On what basis is this an “excellent study” in terms of ecological histories ? And how does “lost” or “damaged ecosystems” fit in to the discussion on the two species of eagle in the Welsh contex ?

      1. Restoration ecologists often fail to put their work in a historical context due to “shifting baselines” and short human life-spans, and most fail to look back more than a few generations. To really appreciate how much Wales has changed we need to be able to look back over the centuries. While our vision back into time can only be impressionistic, it nevertheless provides a template to guide the rebuilding of future communities of plants and animals. The return of eagles to Wales would be important and iconic steps to restoring our lost and damaged natural communities.

        1. Yes-I agree with the concept but how has this paper suceeded in achieving this goal.?The data is there but does it reflect what this paper is stating ? Why the need to use the term “iconic” this is nothing more than jargon and is irrelevant in this context but is used in an emotive sense.The Online Supporting Information(OSI) is very inconsistence and the referencing is inaccurate. I am intrigued by the reference to Gwynfor Evans and the “evidence” of “breeding” Golden Eagle in Eryri !.The first two references refer to the same bird and incorrectly referenced to the wrong work by Forrest.They reference 24 persecution records out of “84 individual incidents between 1804 and 1920” which are inconsistent and inaccurate.Search for the “Holyhead Harbour” one and you will see what I mean.Another directs you to a poem entitled The Wakening of Cambria .The only connection with ‘ eagle’ is a footnote refering to Eryri as Snowdonia. There has been much debate on the name Snowdonia-romantically though of as “the domain of eagles” but in reality it refers to the landscape. and comes from yr eryr which is Welsh for shingles. Surely such data is questionable as ‘historic evidence’. There is a dire need to look at the data presented and analyse the information. On another note was there any consultation on Welsh place names with an authority in the field or merely an “online” search? I remain unconvinced.

          1. Dewi, you raise important points, that I really do not know enough about to comment upon. I was very happy to see a paper that was considering the history of the eagles in Wales although my knowledge is such that I have taken the information it contains at face value. I have been involved a little in compiling ecological histories about species and agree with you that often the data are ambiguous and need to be carefully evaluated, and often authorities disagree on interpretation. When dealing with these types of “soft” data there is a need to find other threads of information from disparate sources to support or refute the conclusions. Place names are a popular source of information although there are often more than one interpretation as you will know.
            Your observations and evaluations of the historic data are very interesting and you need to publish them.
            The more we know about these references the better we can interpret these data. Although we can argue about individual records, the data are strong enough to show that White-tailed Eagles were once widespread and breeding in Wales although the data on Golden Eagles are, as we are aware, more tenuous. However based on the habitat requirements and distributional patterns we see in Golden Eagles it would be remarkable if historically they were not widespread in Wales. The restoration of eagles to wales would be “iconic” and I do not see the use of this work inappropriate. We do need to restore high profile species since it captures public imagination and helps drive the restoration of complex, dynamic and functional natural systems.

            1. Carl-I agree with the concept but as I said I do not think that the arguament is valid at all in the context of this paper. There are some “potential” records for breeding especially around Kenfig, Margam area but these records are not clear as you can read in “Birds of Glamorgan” (1967) Looking at the data there are at best 30 records spanning a period of 1540 to 2020, with possibly two “potential” breeding records. This equates to what ? maybe one sighting every 20 years. Hardly grounds to state “frequently observed” The use of “icon” or “legend” is usually questionable(apart from Penderyn whisky of couse !) an effort to elevate an object or person to a higher state and convince the reader to agree, this is not science.I continue to believe that the claims are over stated by any stretch of the imagination. At best we can consider, as most of the Ornithological Literature does, that the White-tailed Eagle was, and is, a sporadic vagrant in Wales.One needs to go through the references one by one,these are the foundations and then decide whether this paper is built on sand or not.

  2. It is often the case that the farming sector has a louder voice than the tourist sector. It shouldn’t. This would be a huge boost for Welsh tourism. Albeit a shame that we have to think about money when discussing putting back something that should never have been eliminated.

    1. Well said Paul. The situation in Wales re even basic conservation far less proper rewilding, reintroductions is woeful. The farming (i.e subsidy ranching) community there really plays the victim ad nauseum, they want everybody else to give them money to keep going, but they’ve to dictate the terms which is doing what’s most convenient for them – business as usual, marginal farming sod all for wildlife. It’s incredibly frustrating no matter what it does the conservation community is painted as a baddy, local ‘communities’ are never in the wrong of course and good projects like Summit to Sea have been really struggling to make progress. When the Vincent Wildlife Trust first proposed on doing a pine marten translocation to Wales they did the obligatory public consultation (pine martens FFS) – some of the recorded interviews with hill farmers showed a jaw dropping ignorance and kneejerk reaction against it that made you wonder if tales of rural incest/inbreeding might have some foundation. The farmers have been particularly vehement about bringing beaver back there too – notice how there as yet no queue of landowners wanting them on their land in Wales as in there is in England. Beavers of course would do a lot for reducing the flood peaks from all that water pouring off those hills, but then again sod everybody else – nobody worries how Gloucester at the bottom of the Severn is affected.

      We MUST stop treating the farming community as a sacred cow especially the part of it that gets subsidies when we throw about 40% of our food away and have an obesity crisis, but social services are struggling for money. My experiences on Lewis dealing with crofters means I’ve now got a hair trigger response for anytime I hear how hard up farmers are. If they truly are then better some of the stacks of public dosh going to the croftocracy are redirected than the rest of us are tapped for it even more. Re how particularly bloody awful the subsidy ranchers in Wales are here is the exception that proves the rule – a group of progressive sheep farmers who took it upon themselves to do fantastic work integrating tree planting with sheep farming for the benefit of biodiversity, rural economics and flood prevention. .And who has been championing them as a positive example, the National Sheep Association, NFU Wales? Fat chance it’s been conservation organisations like the Woodland Trust, and even George Monbiot which says an awful lot. Fantastic people trying to bring eagles back to Wales, but I really worry without some arses that need it getting a very hard foot up them then it’s going to be a struggle.

      1. I’ve only just seen this post but I do agree with you. Some of the misinformation put about by the FUW about Summit to Sea was appalling. I just don’t know how they got away with it. it really is time that some of the conservation organisations stood up to the Welsh sheep farming lobby. They still seem to believe that it is their god-given right to carry on doing what they have been doing for the last 50 years and continue being paid from the public purse to do it. There’s no doubt, however, that the sheep-farming “community” is a reservoir for the welsh language. And that remains a big stumbling block for anyone who even suggests that they might change their ways. It’s not long before the “nuclear option” is deployed……..

  3. Can someone (hopefully someone from ERW) clarify and quantify the statement in section 4:1 “There is strong historic evidence for breeding Golden Eagles in Wales with nests being recorded in Castell Dinas Brân in Denbighshire (Forrest, 1907), Carnedd Llewelyn in Gwynedd, and on the high crags of Eryri (Snowdonia; Johnson, 1644). The record in Forest refers to John Leland in the 1540s where he refers to an “egle” nesting there. Roger Cyffin a Welsh poet as quoted by Borrow has the following “Gone, gone are thy gates, Dinas Bran on the height !
    Thy warders are blood-crows and ravens, I trow;
    Now no one will wend from field of the fight
    To the fortress on high, save the raven and crow”
    No mention of “egle” so not strong evidence of breeding. Cyffin refers to raven and (blood)crow easily mis-identified by a stranger on a tour on behalf of a king. The record for Carnedd Llewelyn is also dubious. It comes from an entry by Thomas Johnson (from 1639)a botanist who was unhappy that a guide would not take his party up to Ysgolion Du, which are cliffs between Carnedd Dafydd and Carnedd Llywelyn . In reality going up Snowdon to look for Alpine plants at the beginning of August was not good timing. They should have been there at least two months earlier. If Johnstones timing as a botonist can be questioned then one must doubt his ornithological knowledge. The story is that it was a bad day for walking the mountains with heavy rain and thick fog covering the rocks. Once the reached a ridge the guide refused to take the party any further. According to Johnson the guide stated that he was afraid of “eagles” that nested there attacking them. The “eagles” would fly low frightening the cattle sending them over the cliffs. Now if I was a mountain guide who did not want to go up a mountain in such conditions why wouldn’t I think up a great story ? This is probably more folklore than historic evidence .Only two “potential” historic evidence of nesting spaning a period of 1540 to 2020. Vastly over stated by any stretch of the imagination.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s