Rare breeding success for sea eagles in Cairngorms National Park but outlook for chick is bleak

The Cairngorms National Park Authority has issued the following press release today (6th July 2021). My commentary on this news is below the press release:

Raptor breeding successes for East Cairngorms Moorland Partnership

The productivity of breeding raptors in the east of the Cairngorms National Park this season is encouraging and includes the hatching of a sea eagle chick on Balmoral, the first time that the species has successfully bred on the estate.

The breeding pair of sea eagles – also known as white-tailed eagles – have been observed on Balmoral for the last few years. Both adult birds carry satellite tags and close collaboration with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has allowed the Balmoral Ranger Service to follow their weekly movements during the breeding season. A healthy male chick has now hatched and been ringed. Three golden eagle chicks have also recently been ringed as part of long-term monitoring on Balmoral.

Balmoral Estate is a member of the East Cairngorms Moorland Partnership (ECMP) which has seen breeding success for golden eagles, hen harriers, red kite, osprey, peregrine and merlin, as well as short-eared owls, in 2021, across the various land holdings.

[The young white-tailed eagle chick on the nest at Balmoral. Photo by North East Scotland Raptor Study Group, a member of the Scottish Raptor Study Group]

Richard Gledson, Estate Manager at Balmoral Estate said: “All at Balmoral Estate are delighted that sea eagles have nested successfully for the first time. A previous nesting attempt in 2017 on the same site sadly failed and we have had our fingers crossed since then. The birds have been with us for a couple of years, and we have been working closely with the North East Scotland Raptor Study Group who ringed the chick last week and with the RSPB who have been sending data from their satellite tags.”

Glenavon Estate – which is home to three pairs of golden eagles, including one of the highest nesting sites in Scotland – has had a golden eagle chick satellite tagged for the first time in recent years. Satellite tags are used by biological researchers on a variety of species including eagles and harriers, and provide valuable insight into their movement and survival. Golden eagle chicks have also been tagged on the Glenlivet Estate and Mar Lodge Estate.

Furthermore, Mar Lodge has hosted six hen harrier nests in 2021. One pair failed early in the season, but the other five nests all have chicks. Two hen harrier chicks have been satellite-tagged in collaboration with the RSPB. Evidence from satellite tags fitted to some of the harriers which are now breeding shows that the birds range widely, foraging across ground on neighbouring ECMP estates.

Last year, Mar Estate witnessed the first successful breeding attempt of sea eagles in Deeside for 200 years, but the relatively inexperienced pair failed this season at the hatching stage, with poor weather likely a contributing factor, however hopes are high for success with continued breeding efforts next season and beyond.

Dr Ewan Weston of the North East Scotland Raptor Study Group, who has carried out much of the satellite tagging on ECMP estates, commented: “This year’s raptor tagging on ECMP estates builds on a positive collaboration with the estates over recent years. Despite a very wet, snowy May, the general picture in the area is that raptors, particularly golden eagles, red kites and hen harriers have done well.”

The East Cairngorms Moorland Partnership is a landscape-scale collaboration between five sporting estates and the Cairngorms National Park Authority. The partnership seeks to deliver private interests alongside public benefits, including improving the conservation status of raptors, demonstrating best practice muirburn management, expanding areas of woodland and scrub and peatland restoration. Partners have been collaborating with a wide range of ecologists in the National Park.

Xander McDade, Convenor at the Cairngorms National Park Authority, said: “We are delighted to hear that productivity of raptors in the east of the National Park looks good for 2021. However, we know that we can still do more for the birds and are committed to finding ways of improving the conservation status of moorland raptors, along with other red and amber moorland bird species. This includes working closely with the five estates that make up the ECMP on a range of conservation measures.”


First of all, the breeding success of this pair of white-tailed eagles on Balmoral Estate is obviously very good news and long, long over due.

Norway donated 85 sea eagles for a reintroduction project in eastern Scotland between 2007-2012, although over a quarter of those didn’t survive (the main known causes of death included illegal poisoning, illegally shot, accidentally electrocuted and being hit by trains). The East Coast reintroduction was the third phase of a national reintroduction project that started back in 1975 on the west coast of Scotland, after the species was extirpated from Britain thanks to persecution in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The first successful breeding attempt in east Scotland in 2013, the first for over a century, was an historic milestone in the project and was hoped to be the beginning of a new and vibrant population in the east, mirroring the successful population growth in the west.

So far though, progress has been incredibly slow and ongoing persecution has been at the centre of that (e.g. see here for the news that a sea eagle’s nest tree was deliberately felled on a grouse moor in the Angus Glens, also in 2013-nobody was prosecuted).

A number of young satellite-tagged sea eagles have ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances on or next to grouse moors since then, and only last year a young sea eagle was found dead, illegally poisoned, on another grouse moor inside the Cairngorms National Park (see here). Nobody was prosecuted for that crime.

[A police officer examines the corpse of the illegally poisoned sea eagle found dead on a grouse moor in the Cairngorms National Park in 2020. Photo by Police Scotland].

So yes, it’s excellent news that Balmoral Estate has hosted a successful breeding attempt this year – well done to the team there – but it’s only half of the story. What happens when that young eagle fledges and disperses from Balmoral later this year?

Will it meet the same fate as this young golden eagle, which fledged from a nest site in the eastern Cairngorms last year and was found dead, ‘deliberately poisoned’ on a grouse moor on Invercauld Estate earlier this year?

[An illegally poisoned golden eagle, laying next to a poisoned mountain hare bait, found dead on a grouse moor in the Cairngorms National Park in 2021. Photo by RSPB Scotland]

I can see why the Cairngorms National Park Authority would want to issue this press release – not just to deservedly celebrate the successful breeding attempt on Balmoral Estate but probably more cynically, to try and undo some of the reputational damage that has been caused to the Park Authority and to its Eastern Cairngorms Moorland Partnership (ECMP) after the discovery of the poisoned golden eagle earlier this year on one of the ECMP’s partner estates (now no longer a partner) and the deserved criticism that the Park Authority has received for refusing to publish the correspondence it had had with the ECMP about the future of Invercauld Estate as a member of the ECMP following the discovery of the poisoned eagle (see here). This is the same tactic the Park Authority employed a few years ago when illegally-set traps were found on Invercauld Estate (here).

The ECMP can thank its lucky stars that one of its (now five) member estates is Mar Lodge, owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and with a glowing reputation for raptor conservation, especially for breeding hen harriers. Without Mar Lodge’s efforts, the ECMP’s raptor conservation efforts would be looking pretty feeble to date.

Although I noted the irony of the statement in the Park Authority’s press release that, ‘Evidence from satellite tags fitted to some of the harriers which are now breeding shows that the birds range widely, foraging across ground on neighbouring ECMP estates‘.

Er, yeah, but they forgot to mention how many of those hen harriers subsequently ‘disappear’ in suspicious circumstances on grouse moors in the ECMP and beyond (e.g. see here).

It doesn’t matter how far the Park Authority tries to spin the very welcome but too infrequent ‘good news’ stories like the breeding white-tailed eagles on Balmoral – the bottom line remains that large areas of the Cairngorms National Park are still raptor persecution hotspots and until that changes, the outlook for this young sea eagle is bleak.

8 thoughts on “Rare breeding success for sea eagles in Cairngorms National Park but outlook for chick is bleak”

  1. Very good news on the breeding front — but tempered by the fact that up until the the past couple of years when intense political pressure accompanied by widespread media coverage there were few, if any, reports of birds of prey breeding successfully.
    When crimes have been committed it is generally accepted that true repentance is accompanied by an honest account of previous criminal activity in the pertinent field . That has not been forthcoming and as many sink estates are dotted around this area, many registered in a manner that makes placing responsibility for it almost impossible, it is indeed possible that many of this years gains are temporary.
    I spoke to Simon Ramsay, whose father owns Invermark Estate, online a couple of years ago and he made me aware of the ongoing monitoring of birds of prey there. However, I have heard nothing of the results as yet and cynically believe that these efforts might well be released during negotiations concerning the licensing oif Driven Grouse Moors, or possibly at some other moment which they see as central to them. I’ve also no doubt as to the identities of the “ornithologists” aiding this proicess, who have disappeared from the scene after the embarrassment of the Glendye Estate illegal trap fiasco and other embarrassments.
    Although licensing will in some way reduce the threat to the birds simply passing laws, criminal or civil, in no way threatens them as has been shown by them snubbing their noses up at the 1954 Protection of Birds Act for many years while ignoring or undermining many other efforts to stop this systematic criminal behaviour… and all without accountability. The estates being mainly private land they can change how they use it at any given time and revert to old ways and attitudes — unless a supporting structure is raised around these new concessions.
    One fly in the ointment was the statement that “The partnership seeks to deliver private interests alongside public benefits,” which is the very model under which all these crimes against birds — and if one reads Parkwatch many more “rimes” against the integrity of the Park — were enacted. IF financial interests continue to be prioritised against environmental and ecological needs then this turn of events might be short lived indeed .. especially with Westminsters Trade Bill yet to be passed which has the possibility of negating some of the licensing restirctions if they prove to be harming the income or interests of a company and is designed to over ride the laws of Scotland.
    A National Park should be funded by public money and it’s primary concerns shouyld be the environment and the ecology — whichg is why I am distrurbed by the inclusion of “private interests” in the statement by Dr. Ewan Weston. It’s one of those small phrases which are often highlighted during negotiations to divert organisations from their primary purpose … more so if the backroom staff are not encouraged to speak up … as i have heard is the case in some similar situations.
    Aye, the struggle is far from over and I, for one, will not be lulled into a sense of security and will attempt to keep my eye firmly on the ball.

  2. The sea eagles recently reintroduced to the Isle of Wight are also in jeopardy from criminal hunting and poisoning on and around Grouse moors – it is so so sad. My suggestion is that if crimes occur, the moors themselves are considered proceeds of crime and can be forfeited to the nation! Current sanctions are blatantly ineffectual – it seems confiscation is now the only option!

    1. You seem to suggest dfmoorse that there are grouse moors in the proximity of the Isle of Wight – really? You really need to understand what you’re talking about, and the author(s) of this blog should take a moment to truly educate its readers, rather than letting pure ignorance and errors just hang there uncorrected.

      1. Justin S O

        Can I suggest you take your own advice (“You really need to understand what you’re talking about…”) and do some research on where some the reintroduced Isle of Wight sea eagles dispersed to?

      2. Hi Justin, dfmoorse isn’t saying that at all and I reckon you know that. I have followed tagged bird G405 (roy dennis foundation) online, whenever she has been in the north of england & borders It is sad to say I find it a bit stressful, I an mightily pleased when she returns to the Isle of Wight.

  3. “The partnership (ECMP) seeks to deliver private interests alongside public benefits, including… demonstrating best practice muirburn management…”

    That would be NO muirburn, surely?

  4. RE: Mar Lodge – Am just reading “Regeneration” by Andrew Painting. Avery interesting and informative read.
    Highly recommend.

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