Young golden eagles actively avoid wind turbines in Scotland: new scientific research paper

There’s a fascinating new scientific research paper just published in Ibis, the journal of the British Ornithologists’ Union, relating to the flight behaviour of young satellite-tagged golden eagles in Scotland in and around windfarms.

Authored by a number of experts from Scotland’s Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Group (GESTG), this study demonstrates how young golden eagles actively avoid operational wind turbines.

Here is the abstract:

The notion that young dispersing golden eagles in Scotland appear to avoid wind farms was discussed in the Government-commissioned report published in 2017: Fielding & Whitfield, Analyses of the Fates of Satellite Tracked Golden Eagles in Scotland (see Chapter 8), when the authors were examining whether any of the tagged eagles that had ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances were within the vicinity of a wind farm.

The report concluded that no, they weren’t, and it was recommended that further detailed research be undertaken to examine the movements of young satellite-tagged eagles in and around operational vs non-operational windfarms, which is the focus of this latest paper.

Unfortunately this paper is behind a paywall (a particular gripe of mine but that’s for another day) so I can’t post the full paper on here. However, I do have a related graphic that I think helps to illustrate some of the research findings of the paper.

This map shows the flight lines (red) of one of the young satellite-tagged golden eagles that Chris Packham and I are monitoring. It shows, quite clearly, how this young eagle is generally avoiding flying over / through the footprints of three large windfarms (blue) in the Monadhliath Mountains (thanks to Alan Fielding for the data analysis).

Why this avoidance technique seems so prevalent in young Scottish golden eagles, in sharp contrast to findings in some other countries where certain raptor species have been recorded in high incident turbine collisions, is really interesting.

Raptor collision with turbines depends on a wide number of variables including site and habitat-related issues as well as the behaviour and ecology of the particular raptor species. It is a well-studied subject in a number of countries and has demonstrated that just because one raptor species has been killed at one wind farm at one location, it doesn’t automatically mean that every raptor is threatened by every wind farm, everywhere. I’m afraid that’s just simplistic nonsense, trotted out by those who are either (a) anti-wind farm or (b) desperate to deflect attention away from the continued illegal poisoning, shooting and trapping of raptors by gamekeepers in the UK (e.g. see here and here).

In their discussion about why young Scottish golden eagles might be avoiding wind turbines, in addition to the finding that habitat suitability inside and outside of the wind farm is important, the authors in this latest paper refer to a concept known as ‘the ecology of fear’ and discuss the evolutionary history of golden eagle persecution in the UK and how this may be leading to a genetic predisposition to wariness of humans, with wind turbines being used as the ‘cue’ for eagles to express their fear (i.e. by avoidance).

This latest paper from the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Group is yet another significant contribution to our understanding of how golden eagles use the landscape and, along with this earlier paper from the GESTG, will greatly help planners and statutory agencies to make decisions that will have the least impact on this protected species and its preferred habitat.

It shouldn’t be necessary but apparently it is, to point out that this research is conducted by highly experienced conservationists, under licence, whose sole motivation is the protection of the golden eagle. They sacrifice time with their families and volunteer an enormous amount of personal time, personal funds and technical expertise to undertake this research. In any other country their efforts would be celebrated, applauded and appreciated (as indeed they have been in Spain!). But in Scotland, they are slandered, abused and attacked (e.g. here) by those who are desperate to corrode public and political confidence in raptor satellite-tagging because they know how incriminating these satellite tag data can be, exposing time and again the areas where birds of prey are being illegally killed.

There are a number of other peer-reviewed scientific papers from the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Group, due imminently.

11 thoughts on “Young golden eagles actively avoid wind turbines in Scotland: new scientific research paper”

  1. Great piece of supportive evidence .. and immensely pleased to see the real scientists getting credit for their work.

  2. Superb stuff! The march of real progress – satellite tags providing critical information, and even newer technology reducing the risk of collisions so that it will not be as necessary for eagles or anything else to avoid windfarms in the near(ish) future?

    Beautiful and heartfelt statement from you about the work of those scientists Ruth – the way their kind and conservation field workers often get maligned (e.g ‘Isles of the West’ by Ian Mitchell) in Scotland is a national disgrace.

  3. When my husband brought me on a belated honeymoon to Scotland, with my “wish list” travel plans to visit mostly Non touristy places (well a couple like Staffa, Iona, Mull don’t count because we stuck with local b&b’s and pubs)..and one of the things we hoped, planned around the best options, was to see a Golden Eagle. If this former American and her Brit hubby had this on our top ten list, the epitome of our lovely trip, imagine how many others genuinely DO see Scotland as a place to see, enjoy wildlife and natural curious beautiful places (old man storr, fairy lens, mounds, pinkish stones in the middle of a farm crop, dwarf trees bent sideways…and so much more!) I think there are many more people from around the world and UK who would be keen tourists for the wildlife and natural beauty than just a few groups of rich idiots who think a “Canned Hunt” is anything to brag back home about! A close family friend in the UK goes stalking in Scotland, but he and his group are more akin to the sort of proper, conservation, ethical hunting and he/we detest the DGS sort…I dare ANY one of those ejits to come face to face with a bear in the wild and see how they react! Conservation means balancing nature and man with priority to preserve nature and only utilise our science guided culls, waste NOTHING…never shoot/take any game you do not intend to eat, everything is about attempting to balance the land, population to the detriment of neither, nor corrupt in any way the manner in which true “from fields, woods to plate” is meant. I was part of a group of hunters asked to cull deer in Michigan, as deer/car accidents scaled over the top insurance claims, and everything we didn’t fill our own freezers (gratefully) with, we donated to the hundreds of food banks across the state. Indeed, food banks that have venison on their list, are the most frequently visited facilities. We should be so lucky to adopt the sort of balance without canned hunts, politics etc. Even restaurants in the UK now are recognising the benefit of grey squirrel recipes, as proper cuisine whilst culling an invasive species…my thought were, “I grew up enjoying squirrel and rabbit as a low income family, and now it’s in top restaurants”. Perhaps if we also required label laws to indicate if game birds were taken from “certain” accredited estates known for wild, conservation vs the disgusting “my bag is bigger than your bag” estates…just a thought..and yes…these thoughts DO keep me awake at night…we have some of the most glorious wildlife, need conservation balance and appreciate organic vs farmed food…how can that NOT be considered?

  4. So looking at the overlay of the eagle movements against a satellite map of the area, it seems fair to say that this bird would prefer to live and hunt on areas showing evidence of heather management for grouse production rather than in the vicinity of wind farms. Presumably there’s an element of availability of appropriate prey species that also feeds into this.

    So where does that leave wind farms, a much touted alternative land use to grouse moors, as a viable alternative, also taking into account the specific vegetation management around wind farms to discourage ground nesting birds?

    The SNP clearly have their full weight behind renewables and wind energy, both on and off shore, in particular. Are we to expect an expansion of wind farm sites to drive a contraction in available habitat for bird species, including raptors such as golden eagles?

    Seems like a case of replacing one land use with an even more unsuitable one…

    [Ed: Hi Alauda, I don’t think anyone would argue that young golden eagles are not drawn to grouse moors! We know they are, largely due to an over-abundance of prey (red grouse) due to grouse moor management techniques (i.e. kill off as many predators as possible, year-round) and also because most of the territorial adult eagles that should be there breeding (and would thus deter visiting juvs) are no longer there in large parts of the species’ range because they’ve also been killed. These areas are like honeypots to young dispersing eagles and it’s why so many of the persecution hotspots are centred in and around areas where the land is intensively managed for driven grouse shooting.

    I haven’t heard of windfarms being ‘a much touted alternative land use to grouse moors’ but even if they were, there are strong regulations in place to restrict the placement of turbines, both in and outside of protected designated areas, to protect the potential impact on landscape, wildlife, ecosystems and biodiversity, and also local communities. You can’t just install a windfarm anywhere you like and even when consent has been given, there are typically a number of measures in place particularly to protect sensitive priority bird species. So far, the Scottish planning system seems to be doing relatively well for golden eagles as although there are a lot of wind turbines, not that many of them have been located in areas that would typically be used by eagles (cf earlier 2019 paper from Fielding et al – ‘A simple topographical model to predict golden eagle space use during dispersal’, Ibis 152]

    1. your last paragraph and the apparent success of the planning system….a large flaw here is that many wind farms have been sited in areas with few eagles, such as South Scotland, as there was nothing to base an objection on… eagles are being reintroduced into these areas now and will have to avoid what were once suitable foraging areas. The precious open hill areas of South Scotland [between the vast areas of commercial forestry] should now be looked at with fresh eyes….stopping DGS would be a very good start!

      1. That’s an interesting point. If eagles are avoiding the areas where wind turbines are situated, then potentially that only leaves them the moors used DGS as suitable habitat in which to expand their range. (assuming the parts of the Highlands and other wild areas not used for grouse shooting have already reached maximum capacity)
        The evidence is overwhelming that eagles face illegal persecution in the vicinity of these DGS moors.
        So, if as a nation we are to extend the number of wind farms to help meet our energy needs and emissions targets, (which is a national priority and effects everyone), that will mean that suitable habitat for eagles, which is not being used for wind farms becomes even more critical.
        It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if the conservation state of eagles is to improve in both the Highlands, as well as in the hills of southern Scotland where eagles are being reintroduced, then all illegal persecution which takes place in the vicinity of grouse moors has to stop.
        If those managing those grouse moors are unable to stop this illegal persecution, then that only leaves one realistic option – the complete cessation of using those uplands for DGS.
        This then brings us back to that old question- will politicians simply show wilful blindness to the issue, or are they too stupid to actually do something about it???
        Or perhaps, it’s a form of political corruptness, so that rather than supporting the democratic majority who demand change to better protect the environment and wildlife, politicians sell their souls for the votes and financial support which keep them in government??

  5. Interesting paper…

    Although in favour of wind farms, I’m becoming more and more concerned about them. We need to ensure that the large wind turbine projects are not so destructive in the setting-up and running that they take away most of the ‘green gain’.

    We need a reliable, trustworthy independent body to monitor projects and ensure wind farms are as green as the Government says they are and are not just providing large amounts of money for companies who set them up, and for Government/Crown Estate seabed lease.

    The proposed Rampion 2 project, to cover the entire Sussex Bay from Selsea Bill to Newhaven
    ( ) could pose a risk to Wildlife and Environment. The cabling required could alone cause tremendous destruction, coming inland at Climping and across the Sussex Downs National Park to an enlarged sub-station at Bolney (I’ve heard 4.5 meter-wide tracks of cabling-route talked about!). It would disturb or destroy the irreplaceable or protected, such as forest, badgers and bats. The Eiffel Tower height turbines (2.5 times the height of existing ones) could pose a risk to anything that flies into or near the vast area they will cover. The proposal is for siting in Inshore waters, not off-shore as had been a Government recommendation. How might this affect wildlife? Birds, bats and insects migrate across the Sussex Bay… seals bread in Chichester Harbour & swim along the coast to Kent, even the White-Tailed Sea Eagles released on the Isle of Wight, and disturbance to the (recently protected) Kelp Forest and sea-bed….

    I don’t have great confidence that the Government understands the importance of the wellbeing of wildlife and environment.

  6. Nice report, and again the same problem crops up, gamekeepers, and anti wind farm people, just to clarify my perspective.
    I love watching all raptors, birds of prey, and indeed the normal everyday birds, I loath the practice of illegal killing, and poisoning, and snaring of these birds, and mostly in persuit of protecting game birds which are murdered for the entertainment of rich people without ethics, or anything better to do with their time and money.
    It is time this country, along with many European countries stopped the killing of the raptors, and game birds alike, there have been far too many birds of prey killed in suspicious circumstances, and nearly all within a mile of a gamekeepers areas of interest, ie game shooting areas. It is a barbaric sport, and has no real place in today’s society, it is not done for the benefit of the birds, nor is it done to feed the poor, it is just to keep toffs out of their homes.
    All raptor shootings should be properly investigated, and using data collected from the tags, people should be held accountable.
    Poisoning should also be investigated thoroughly, and anyone responsible, or even possessing poison should be punished.

  7. Would it be inappropriate to ask the extent to which windfarms restrict the range or suppress the number of golden eagles?

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