From the team at BBC Wildlife Magazine

White-tailed eagles found dead in southern England

It has been announced that two white-tailed eagles – both of which were part of a reintroduction project – have been found dead in southern England.

Published: February 15, 2022 at 9:29 am
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It seems that some of the mighty have fallen. This week, it has been announced that two of the 25 white-tailed eagles that have been introduced on to the Isle of Wight since 2019 have been found dead.

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It is a setback for the white-tailed eagle release project, run by Forestry England and the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, which aims to bring these massive eagles, some with a wingspan of as much as 2.5m, back to the skies of England’s south coast after an absence of 240 years.

And the suspicious nature of the deaths has cast a further cloud. Both birds are currently undergoing post-mortem examinations, including toxicology, to establish whether they have been deliberately poisoned. The police are investigating and have appealed for more information.

The eagles were found following “multiagency operations”. One bird is known to have been discovered in Dorset at the end of January, and the other is rumoured to be in Sussex.

White-tailed eagles are native to Britain but were wiped out in England in the 18th century and in Scotland by the beginning of the 20th. The project to reintroduce them to Scotland has been highly successful; there are now 120 breeding pairs.

Also known as sea eagles, and often associated with the coast, these birds are predators with a broad range of tastes, although they mainly feed on fish and water birds. Despite an ability to catch food by dropping down and grabbing live prey with their huge talons, they are also perfectly happy to scavenge fish scraps and to feed from carcasses. They have no qualms about stealing food from other birds, too.

To see a white-tailed eagle in the wild is an experience not to be forgotten. “These majestic hunters cause an almighty panic among all the other birds,” says Andy Lester, Conservation Officer for Hampshire Ornithological Society. “You know one is coming when absolutely everything takes off. It is simply fantastic.”

Not everybody, though, is so enthralled. In a set of Twitter posts quite at odds with the almost-universal dismay expressed by conservationists and local residents at the eagles’ demise, West Dorset MP Chris Loder appeared to play down the seriousness of the incident. In a tweet on 11 Feb, he wrote: “Dorset is not the place for eagles to be reintroduced... I want Dorset Police to focus on County Lines rather than spend time and resources on this.”

Mr Loder then posted a photo of an eagle with a lamb, saying “For local people asking why I don’t want eagles in Dorset, killing our lambs and plaguing our farmers… These pictures say a thousand words.” The photographer concerned, Peter Cairns, contacted Mr Loder publicly on Twitter to explain that he had used an already dead lamb to feed to a captive eagle for an editorial story. In addition, the birds are being introduced into Hampshire, not Dorset.

In Scotland, farmers have long been wary about white-tailed eagles and their potential danger to lambs and other livestock. While most studies have suggested that they take very few lambs (less than 2 per cent of deaths among lambs were linked to eagles in one study, even where the birds were common), a report from Scottish Natural Heritage in 2019 showed that there can potentially be conflict. However, mitigation measures, such as moving eagle nests away from sheep farms (the birds are essentially lazy), can be highly effective. Conservationists say the effect on livestock in the Isle of Wight area, where there is so much other food around, is likely to be minimal.

Whatever the fears might be, the white-tailed eagle introduction project has been granted licences by Natural England and it is illegal to kill or interfere with the birds.


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Main image: © Dorset Police

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