In August 2020 a walker found an adult golden eagle dead in a river in Powys, Wales.
The discovery prompted a great deal of media interest (e.g. here) as this eagle was believed to be the lone bird that had survived for approx 12 years in the wild in Wales, having escaped from captivity when she was three months old.
Just a few days before her corpse was found she’d featured in a BBC documentary presented by Iolo Williams, The Last Wilderness of Wales (available here on BBC iPlayer and well worth a watch for footage of this eagle doing her thing).
At the time of the news reports the cause of death was still to be established.
The Welsh Government organised for a post mortem where it was determined she’d died of systemic Aspergillosis. The PM report included the following description:
‘Asperillosis is the most comon fungal mycosis in birds. Aspergillus fumigatus is a ubiquitous opportunistic organism and factors impairing the birds’ immunity can predispose to disease. No underlying immunocompromising factors were detected on testing. There were extensive, chronic lesions throughout the carcase likely resulting in reduced feed intake, ill-thrift and dehydration and ultimately death‘.
That all looked straight forward and no cause for concern. However, an x-ray of the corpse had also revealed something much more sinister, as documented in the PM report as follows:
So, this golden eagle had been shot previously, although it’s not clear when and the pathologist thought this was unlikely to have contributed to the bird’s death.
Interestingly, the Welsh Government chose to suppress this information. Here is some internal correspondence, released under FoI, where the suppression is detailed:
In later correspondence also released under FoI, Welsh Government officials said this wasn’t deliberate suppression but just standard procedure when informing the original reporter of the incident about the cause of death, excluding any additional information that the PM may have uncovered. Government officials also stated that the Environment Minister had been informed about the gunshot injury.*
That seems reasonable behaviour under normal circumstances. However, finding the only golden eagle in Wales dead in a river couldn’t be described as ‘normal’ under any circumstances. And discovering that the eagle had been shot would also be of significant public interest, not least when there’s currently an active debate about the proposed reintroduction of golden eagles to Wales which could happen as early as next year (see here).
I’d say that public understanding of illegal persecution, including the targeting of a golden eagle, was actually fundamental to the debate.
Although according to an FoI response from the Welsh Government’s statutory conservation agency Natural Resources Wales (NRW) last month, officials there claimed to have received no correspondence about the shooting of this golden eagle either. That seems a bit odd, doesn’t it? Surely officials in the environmental section of the Welsh Government talk to officials in NRW, especially on a subject as significant as the shooting of a golden eagle?
It’s not the first time information about golden eagles in Wales has been suppressed. Last month NRW withheld correspondence it had had with Wilder Britain, one of two competing organisations involved with the proposed reintroduction of golden eagles to Wales (see here).
In an FoI refusal letter, NRW argued that Wilder Britain had refused permission to release its correspondence with NRW. I’ve lodged a review of that decision because I don’t believe it should apply to correspondence written by NRW to Wilder Britain in relation to a proposed reintroduction project. I believe the public have a right to know what advice NRW has been giving to someone proposing to reintroduce golden eagles to Wales and especially now that it’s been confirmed that Wales’s only wild-living golden eagle had at some stage been illegally shot.
*Update 12.24hrs: The person who took the dead eagle from the walker and delivered it for post mortem has been in touch to say the Welsh Government did provide details of the pellet and did not try to dissuade her from sharing that information with the media. This information is supported by some of the FoI material I’ve received, which shows that the Welsh Government informed her about the pellet sometime after they’d first mentioned to her that Aspergillosis was the cause of death, and seemingly only after being prompted by an outside agency to do so.
There is further correspondence, released under FoI which hasn’t been published here, in which the Welsh Government explicitly states, ‘We aren’t planning any proactive comms‘ [about the eagle being shot].
UPDATE 17.00HRS: This blog post has been picked up by Wales Online (here)
UPDATE: This blog post has been picked up by the Mail Online, who couldn’t report it accurately (claiming the eagle was shot twice) nor manage to acknowledge the source of their story).
UPDATE 16 February 2021: Toxicology analysis has confirmed this eagle had ‘high concentrations of rat poison in its liver, which may have contributed to its death’, according to the BBC (here)