Natural England has issued a licence to release up to 60 white-tailed sea eagles on the Isle of Wight over the next five years. Previously extinct in the UK, this reintroduction will be the first time sea eagles have been seen flying over England for almost 240 years.

The project, led by the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation and Forestry England, aims to establish a breeding population of the eagles in southern England. This follows the successful programme to reintroduce the birds to Scotland which has been ongoing for the past 40 years.

The potential reintroduction of sea eagles to England was highlighted in the Governments 25 Year Environment Plan published in January 2018.

“Natural England is pleased to be able to license this application.  As described in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, bringing back lost species in a well-planned and supported way not only helps wildlife populations recover, but can also help more people connect with nature and open up new business opportunities.”

Taken from a statement by Natural England

What happened to the eagles?

The largest bird of prey found in the UK with an impressive wingspan of up to 2.5 metres, white-tailed sea eagles were once common across many parts of southern England.

Human activity, particularly persecution during the middle ages, eventually led to the extinction of the white-tailed sea eagles as a breeding species. The last breeding pair recorded in England was in 1780 on Culver Cliff on the Isle of Wight. The species survived in Scotland until the early 20th century, when the last known individual in the UK was shot in 1918.

Attempts to reintroduce the birds to Scotland began in the 1950s but were initially unsuccessful. A second attempt, which began in the 1970s on the Isle of Rum, proved to be more successful and the population in Scotland is now over 130 breeding pairs.

A white-tailed eagle fishing by Jacob Spinks via Wiki Commons

Return to the Isle of Wight

Experts identified many areas in Southern England as a suitable site for reintroduction. The Isle of Wight was eventually selected to be the most suitable.

“The Isle of Wight was chosen as a location for the project given its central position on the South Coast, an ideal habitat for these coastal loving birds. In time it is hoped the birds will spread east and west along the coast and also help to link up existing populations of white-tailed sea eagles living in Ireland and the Netherlands. The Island offers an ideal habitat for the birds with its numerous potential nesting sites in woods and cliffs and is located close to highly suitable foraging areas for fish and other food in the Solent and surrounding estuaries.”

Bruce Rothnie, South Forest Management Director, at Forestry England

Support for the project on the Isle of Wight and the nearby southern coast of England has reportedly been high with 76% of local people surveyed being in favour of the reintroduction.

As well as the benefits to conservation, the return of white-tailed eagles is likely to provide economic benefits as birdwatchers flock to the island to get a glimpse of the birds. In Scotland, the increased amount of tourism due to the presence of the eagles has reportedly generated £5 million and £2.4 million each year to the economy of the Isle of Mull and the Isle of Skye respectively.

The first reintroductions are due to begin in June this year. Juvenile white-tailed sea eagles will be collected from nests of birds in Scotland and translocated to the Isle of Wight where they will be held for 3-4 weeks before being released. Food will be provided near to the release sites throughout autumn and winter until they become fully independent.

“It is incredible now to be able to play a part in returning these birds back to their home. We look forward to working with a range of organisations on the Island, and in the Solent area, to help make this exciting project a success.”

Roy Dennis of the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation

References

Forestry England – Britain’s largest bird of prey the white-tailed eagle set to return to Southern England

Natural England – Natural England issues licence to release white-tailed eagles

Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation – White-tailed Eagle Reintroduction on the Isle of Wight

Header Image: White-tailed eagle in Svolvaer, Norway by Yathin S Krishnappa via Wiki Commons.

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