Proposed golden eagle reintroduction to Wales: genuine intent or just a publicity stunt?

Back in February 2019 we blogged about two different organisations who were taking two very different approaches to a possible reintroduction of the golden eagle to Wales (see here and here).

[Young golden eagle, Getty Images]

The most serious effort, in our view, to examine whether this might be feasible and appropriate was/still is being undertaken by a team of researchers at Cardiff University under the auspices of the Eagle Reintroduction Wales (ERW) Project (view their website here). The ERW’s approach has involved several years of carefully conducting a scoping exercise, to properly consider all the factors that need to be addressed before a reintroduction licence would be granted, e.g. biological and environmental considerations, social and political considerations, and comprehensive risk assessments and an exit strategy. The group has also been building partnerships with local stakeholders.

The other organisation is called Wilder Britain (website here), whose sole director is Dr Paul O’Donoghue, who according to Companies House is also a Director of six other companies, some of whom blog readers may already be familiar (Lynx UK Trust Community Interest Company (CIC), Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC, Wildcat Haven CIC, Paul O’Donoghue Consultancy Ltd, Specialist Wildlife Services Ltd, and We Rescue Animals CIC). Some of you may know Dr O’Donoghue’s name as being behind the failed 2018 application to reintroduce Lynx to Kielder Forest (see here) and earlier this year he lost an outrageous defamation claim against Andy Wightman MSP (see here).

In a blaze of publicity and fanfare in February 2019, it was claimed that Wilder Britain’s plans to reintroduce ten golden eagles to Wales were ‘well underway’ and that a licence application would be submitted to Natural Resources Wales (NRW) by July 2019.

However, at that time there was very little detail available about any research that may or may not have been completed to support such an application. We were also interested in any modelling work that would be needed to understand how many young eagles would have to be released to establish a self-sustaining breeding population. Many previous studies on raptor reintroductions have demonstrated that long term success is largely dependent on releasing a sufficient number of birds, which is calculated by considering a wide variety of demographic factors. And that’s assuming that the habitat and prey has been deemed sufficient to support any reintroduction and that illegal persecution isn’t a threat. One thing’s for sure, any viable project is going to need to release significantly more than ten birds, which according to Dr O’Donoghue are being sourced from ‘Europe’ and will all be satellite tracked. We’re talking serious funding requirements here, that are unlikely to be met by Wilder Britain’s requests to ‘sponsor an eagle’ on its website.

Curious to find some answers, in November 2019 we asked NRW, via a freedom of information request, for copies of all correspondence it had had with Dr O’Donoghue/Wilder Britain, including any licence applications. NRW responded by stating it had received no correspondence from Dr O’Donoghue/Wilder Britain relating to a proposed golden eagle reintroduction (see here). Hmm.

Fast forward to August 2020 and amidst another blaze of publicity, which just happened to coincide with the news that a golden eagle that had been living in the wild in Wales for several years had been found dead (here), and up pops Dr O’Donoghue again, this time announcing (here) a public survey and consultation to support a proposal to ‘release five pairs of golden eagles’ in Wales in 2021.

This afternoon, Dr O’Donoghue is hosting the first of several public meetings in Wales to answer questions about the proposal. Should be interesting.

UPDATE 16.25hrs:

Here is a tweet from @WCRCUK who attended this meeting:





41 thoughts on “Proposed golden eagle reintroduction to Wales: genuine intent or just a publicity stunt?”

  1. Will these birds stay put or will they stay to be poisoned shot trapped or what ??
    Sometimes these birds are safer if not moved.

  2. Yes, I was hoping to see a schedule of proposed consultation meetings that would be held around Snowdonia, with a view to future attendance. Absolutely nothing on the website, so not a particularly professional approach. It does say the session is a starting point, so I hope to see a consultation schedule that allows stakeholders and local communities from around Snowdonia to plan their future involvement.

  3. Most of the reintroductions / reinforcements concentrate on iconic raptors as these are big birds which can attract the non-birding publics attention and oblique support. While it is all well and good having these species back where they once thrived and it will attract positive publicity to highlight the plight of Raptors in general I feel the large amount of money spent is very much a publicity stunt. Why is the same level of expenditure not directed at some of our species which are in serious decline?? I think a large part of the answer can be found when we examine the species which require most help and set them against the ones which are attracting the funding.
    Most of the public are aware of Golden Eagles, Ospreys, Sea Eagles, Red Kite etc but how many would recognise, let alone have heard of, Corn Bunting, Willow Tit, Cetti’s Warbler, Yellow Wagtail etc.
    When it comes to attracting funding it is easier to stimulate interest in large iconic Raptors rather than little brown jobs.
    While I am not against any positive action to help birds I think supporting the ones mentioned above, which lets be honest are not as globally threatened as much of the publicity infers and is more for publicity, tourism, and local interest.

    1. I could not have put it better and completely agree with all you say which is quite a novel experience for me but i would also add thay if we cannot protect the iconic species in the locations they WOULD be successful whats the point in moving them around

  4. I read the article at the head of this page, with considerable interest – with much to my surprise, a deal of agreement – and the logical and sensible approach to the issue, being welcome. I haven’t a clue who Dr. O’Donoghue is, and reading of him doesn’t find me any more keen.

    I have every hope that Cardiff University will provide a balanced and reasoned report – though considering their claimed and final parameter – that of deciding upon an ‘Exit-strategy’ should it all go horribly wrong, then I’m left intrigued as to what the options could be.

    Considering the plans to re-introduce Golden Eagles to Wales (North? – presumably) we are left wondering what will be the planned for prey which will sustain these birds. Hares are struggling to maintain their numbers, especially on high ground in Wales, where incidentally, they are not habitually shot. The Grouse numbers in Wales have always been at a subsistence level – there’s little or no moorland ‘keepering carried out.

    Will the planned for area available to Eagles be large enough to maintain a viable population and to avoid a level of genetic weakening by a diminutive gene pool?

    Farming sheep in North Wales is a precarious and difficult business – I have dealt with generations of Welsh Hill Farmers and it can only be their dogged tenacity which keeps them going – – quite how they will react to an additional threat to their young lambs, I’m not sure. I would add that one of the overriding reasons for the failure of a Lynx releasing scheme, is because of the clear and likely impact upon those who farm sheep.

    Eagles in Wales? It’s an interesting idea and one which I shall now go away and research – currently I can only see one clear reason for the plan to go ahead, but several concerns as to why it may not be such a good idea.

    R Stuart Craig – your points made, have merit. Promoting and protecting birds of prey is all very well, but if they have no larder, the chances of success, are slim. The seemingly small and insignificant ‘little brown jobs’ are an important part of and perhaps a start to, our raptor’s food chain.

    Chucking out half a dozen Golden Eagles with a ‘there you are, get on with it, you’re a part of our plan’ approach – will have predictable results – with everyone wide-eyed, and looking for someone to blame.

    1. Alec,

      Your claim that ‘one of the overriding reasons for the failure of a Lynx releasing scheme, is because of the clear and likely impact upon those who farm sheep’, is inaccurate.

      If you want to know the real reason Dr O’Donoghue’s licence application to release Lynx at Kielder was refused, have a read of this letter from the Secretary of State to Lynx UK Trust (click link below). It’s very detailed, and, I’d suggest, highly pertinent to the Wilder Britain proposal to reintroduce golden eagles to Wales.

      You also sound a bit surprised at the concept of eagles living in Wales. This paper, written by the ERW Project team, is an excellent starting point to understanding the history of both eagle species in Wales:

      1. Mull doesn’t have Red Grouse and there isn’t an abundance of hares but the Golden Eagle density is high as it is elsewhere on the west coast. Golden Eagles on Mull seem to be accepted by sheep farmers.

            1. I’ll admit to only skip reading the interesting report, thanks for that.
              Whilst of seemingly catholic tastes, WTE and GE have similar tastes with the GE supposedly having a preference for lagomorphs and other terrestrial prey – to include mustelidae and hedgehogs. I had to google Lagomorphs – I’ve always referred to them as Hares and Rabbits!
              Again, I didn’t read the entire report, but what I did read didn’t seem to be either clear, or certain and I suspect that there was a degree of assumption involved, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – an inspired guess being of more use than a ‘Dunno’!
              I also wonder if the GE is as much a feeder on carrion as it is a hunter and during the winter months, elderly Red hinds which have missed the annual cull and having expired through cold and hunger, will keep the Eagle population sustained.
              In the event that there was a degree of vaguery in the report – and considering that the hills of Wales – probably through extensive/over grazing by sheep, in reality carry very little on the way of game or indigenous prey-mammals, I still wonder at the plans.

              I’m also wondering at the size of an area which would be needed to keep say, a pair of GE. I have spent a great many days on the Scottish Hill, areas with an abundance of suitable prey – whilst deerstalking and it’s surprising just how rarely we see The Eagle – more Peregrines and Buzzards too – but when we do see him – wheeling about and 1000′ above us, it’s always a red-letter day.

              [Ed: You say, “I’ll admit to only skip reading the interesting report….”. With respect then, Alec, your subsequent critique of this peer-reviewed published scientific paper isn’t worth any sort of analysis or further comment]

          1. Birds of the Western Palearctic would be a good place to start.
            I think they take whatever they can find and it probably varies between individuals. An old male near me used to sit on a hillock behind our house and hunt just by watching the rabbits below. Saw it take one on a couple of occasions. Unfortunately the new pair don’t seem to have figured this out and rabbits are now getting into my vegetable garden. But carrion is no doubt a huge source of food on Mull and because Red Deer are so large they can keep both eagle species, Ravens and Hooded Crows fed for a few days. There is usually a deer or sheep carcass lying around somewhere, sometimes several. The farmer where i live buries the sheep but others are more lax and often they are out of sight. I have even seen a goldie chase a thrush and seen one kill a Short-eared Owl fledgling. I really doubt lack of food would be a limiting factor in Wales. But i am just guessing.

  5. The BBC web site gave publicity to Wilder Britain’s ‘plan’ to reintroduce Golden Eagles to Wales on August 18th 2020. I notified the BBC of the judgement made against O’Donoghue in the Scottish Court of Session. They replied stating that:

    “Natural Resources Wales confirmed: ‘We are aware of interest in the reintroduction of golden eagles into Wales. Reintroducing golden eagles to Wales would need to be carried out under a licence issued by Natural Resources Wales’ ”

    and that:

    “Lancaster University also confirmed that they had carried out the feasibility study as was claimed.”

    but added:

    “However, rest assured that your concerns regarding Paul O’Donoghue have been noted and that we will bear them in mind should we look at this subject again in the future.”

    Paul O’Donoghue is currently hosting Channel 5’s Elephant Hospital.

    1. The Lancaster University claim which is also the same as Paul O’Donoghue’s claim for his lynx study, is nkt what it seems. Both the eagle and lynx study claims are from studenys who are currently doing their Masters, therefore he is mentioning students dissertations and can be verified via the university and via an FOI.

      Dr O’donoghue is XXXXX XXXXX XXXXX XXXXX XXXXX best stay well clear of him.

  6. I was told that the Lake District had too many walkers to sustain Golden Eagles nowadays. If that is true and i had my doubts, surely Wales would be the same. I know that some eagles are much more susceptible to disturbance than others and it might work with a less nervous pair. That may not fulfil the re-introduction requirements but logically, since re-introductions are allowed even when the chances of raptor persecution are high, it shouldn’t therefore be an obstacle if there is a reasonable chance of success.
    Not with O’Donoghue though. He will be selling shares in Golden Eagles eyries.

    1. Anand there are some large areas in Mid to North Wales particularly the Cambrian Mountains that have very few walkers or roads and this is where the “escaped ” Eagle lived for about 10 years living by all accounts mainly on Rabbits, corvids and sheep carrion. The tourist traps ion Snowdonia of course are unsuitable because of too many folk although even there short journeys away and you don’t see a soul all day. When there were Eagles still in mid and North Wales there were also probably more people living rurally not that O’Donoghue should be allowed anywhere near a proper release scheme.

      1. Thanks Paul. I did wonder if there were still some more quiet places in mid Wales. I used to live in Bethesda but that was in the 70s when you could walk all day and not see anyone.
        Did the cause of death of that eagle ever become public? Do you think it wasn’t an escape?

        1. Anand, all I know is the bird went for an autopsy and I assume if anything untoward was found it will have entered the WIIS scheme so we will have to wait and see. Although Iolo Williams TV programme talked of the bird being an escape, and Iolo usually knows these things, I was told by two independent folk that it was from the Irish re-introduction scheme. Wherever it came from it proved the species can survive here in mid Wales. Of course we think of GE as a very upland bird but elsewhere in Europe it can be found in farmland in some countries too but they do need secure and undisturbed nest sites.

  7. Wilder Britain CIC a dormant company with £100 is one of five CICs and two companies of the infamous Dr Paul O’Donoghue and is xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx. Best advice, stay well clear of this.

  8. Wilder Britain CIC has only £100 in its accounts, there is no funding or grants that Wilder Britain has, they have o eagles and any claim tk obtain eagles fro. Europe is highly questionable and xxxxxxxxx

    [Ed: Paul, thanks for your comments. Please don’t keep trying to post what is a clearly defamatory accusation about Dr O’Donoghue – it won’t be published here no matter how many times you repeat it and it wastes my time having to delete it on every comment.

    Re: obtaining eagles from Europe – you’re right to question the willingness of another country to donate stock for a proposed reintroduction project that currently lacks any publicly available plans for scrutiny, but none of us know whether Dr O’Donoghue has received offers of donor stock or not. However, you’re also right in that the claim could be seen as questionable at this stage especially as NRW hasn’t approved any licence application for a reintroduction.

    Re: the funding – the Wilder Britain accounts as detailed on Companies House represent the period up to 31 August 2019 so there is no way of knowing what other funds have since become available. More recent accounts are not now due until 28 February 2021]

  9. Can we not crowdfund a project for Dr O’ Donoghue like oh I don’t know, growing a population of great auk from DNA on a North Atlantic island? I’d put in a fiver for a 25year project!

    1. Really? Where do you think you are going to get hold of a Golden Eagle in order to release it in England and Wales without a license then?

      The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 states:

      “If any person keeps or has in his possession or under his control any bird included in Schedule 4 which has not been registered and ringed or marked in accordance with regulations made by the Secretary of State, he shall be guilty of an offence”

      1. Not easy I imagine. I gather this project was looking oversees for donor birds. There are already some GEs held in captivity in Britain though I don’t know the numbers. Any birds held legitimately in captivity can, as I understand it, be released into the wild without a licence. The legislation in this area is woefully inconsistent and inadequate in England and Wales. Much better in Scotland.

        1. ” I gather this project was looking oversees for donor birds. There are already some GEs held in captivity in Britain though I don’t know the numbers. Any birds held legitimately in captivity can, as I understand it, be released into the wild without a licence.”

          To either import or hold a Golden Eagle in captivity in England and Wales requires a license, but… once you have a license the bird can be released. As with deaths and escapes and exports and moving and change of ownership, the authorities have to be informed.

          Any such birds held captive can be inspected (rings/microchips etc), and convictions for breaches are quite severe, with bans on holding any further Schedule 4 birds.

          I think ‘released into the wild without a license’ is therefore not true. But… released into the wild without a ‘separate/special’ license just for releasing a single bird, over-and-above the license required to hold/import a Schedule 4 bird in the first place, is true.

          Special licenses are available for vets, for example, to release rehabilitated Schedule 4 birds back into the wild – and for certain other authorised persons (RSPCA, RSPB, registered keepers) – and are also available for incubating eggs of captive-bred such birds (where Natural England, Defra and the Police also become involved)

          The whole issue is bound up with licensing and I have not seen any material difference in Scottish law… although there is a Scottish Code for Translocations, as there is for Wales. Natural England say that they follow the IUCN Guidelines and require a completed form “License Application for a Species Translocation Project”.

          That looks suspiciously like a ‘license for the purposes of reintroducing Golden Eagles’ to me, and what would have been required, for example, before the release of White Tailed Eagles on the Isle of Wight.

          1. The problem is that birds can be obtained legally to be held in captivity. That is already the case with GEs held by many different centres and individuals in Britain. Those birds can be released into the wild without a licence and without going through any of the best practice that responsible projects would want to follow. The requirements relating to registration of Schedule 4 species do not prevent them from being released. In that respect GE is very different to WTE where a release licence is required and will only be issued if the IUCN guidelines have been followed. The same is true for many other species – Pine Marten, Wildcat and White Stork to give just three examples. The legislation is a mess with Defra often reacting belatedly by adding a species to Schedule 9 only when problems become apparent, and often after the damage has already been done.

            1. “The problem is that birds can be obtained legally to be held in captivity.”

              Indeed, but not specifically for release. By law any release has to be notified. Repeat that and bang goes your license.

              Golden Eagle and White Tailed Eagle are both Schedule 4 listed birds, so the regulations apply equally to both.

              Why not ask Defra and the Animal and Plant Health Agency?

  10. Anand…glad to hear that GE are now well accepted by sheep farmers on Mull – it was not always so!…That will be the result of peer pressure from Muileachs and a lot of hard work for decades by sea eagle volunteers, local police and RSPB staff. In 1981, I remember the NCC area officer telling me he hated going to Mull as he couldnt get off the ferry without some local sheep farmer bending his ear about eagles and lambs. I presume we are in a similar very early phase with welsh sheep farmers – although wildlife education at school and the likes of Attenborough, Packham and the wonderful Iolo will have changed some minds.

  11. Such a lot i’d like to say here!

    Re Paul Donoghue: xxxxxxxxxxx (deleted to save ed the time doing it!).

    Re The Cardiff University (ERW) project: They are quite unambiguous that any release scheme is a very long way off. I did some voluntary survey work for the project last year and it became clear that in reality I was helping two MSc students with their dissertations/theses. This is not a criticism of ERW but an honest reflection of the stage their project has reached. The methods they were using purported to be surveying potential competitors to introduced eagles. However they were looking only for birds of prey (specifically kites, buzzards and kestrels) and not ravens, which seemed a bit strange.

    From conversations I had with one of the students, they would be looking at coastal areas where there is plenty of suitable prey for WTE’s. Largely uninhabited and undisturbed upland areas of which they are wide expanses in mid and north Wales were thought more suitable for GE’s; however the main prey in those areas would be sheep carrion which brings me on to my next point……

    Re Natural Resources Wales: I have my doubts about whether NRW would ever give the go-ahead for an eagle re-introduction project, in any circumstances. They are so unwilling to stand up for wildlife in any meaningful way. The saga of the relatively uncontroversial beaver re-introductions in Wales, which has still not been given the go-ahead, demonstrates this quite clearly. Re-introducing eagles into Wales would meet vociferous and entrenched opposition from the farming unions and NRW would be unwilling and probably unable to stand up to it.

    Re the escaped eagle in the Cambrian Mountains : if I remember correctly when it first appeared it was wearing jesses. It was definitely an escaped bird and was relatively approachable, unlike wild GE’s. A bit surprising it was accepted so readily by the local farmers.

    Incidentally, I would be very interested to hear from anyone who managed to get to Paul O’Donoghue’s “meet the public” effort last week. There was no way I could go at such short notice.

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