Two white-tailed eagles found dead | BBC Countryfile Magazine

Efforts to reintroduce White-tailed Eagles to southern England have just suffered a serious setback. It has been announced that two of the 25 people released on the Isle of Wight since 2019 have been found dead.

The eagles were found following “multi-agency operations” in the south of England. One bird is known to have been found in Dorset at the end of January, and the other is believed to be in Sussex.

Both birds are currently undergoing post-mortem examinations, including toxicology, to determine if they were deliberately poisoned. The police are investigating and have appealed for more information.

The White-tailed Eagle Release Project, led by Forestry England and the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, aims to bring these massive eagles, with a wingspan of up to 2.5m, back to southern England after an absence of 240 years. The birds are native to Britain but were wiped out in England in the 18and century and in Scotland at the beginning of the 20and. The plan to reintroduce them to Scotland has been a great success; there are now 120 breeding pairs.

Although there was almost universal disappointment and dismay expressed by conservationists and local residents, West Dorset MP Chris Loder appeared to play down the seriousness of the incident. In a February 11 tweet, he wrote: “Dorset is not the place where eagles need to be reintroduced…I want Dorset Police to focus on county lines rather than spending time and resources to that.”

Mr Loder then posted a picture of an eagle with a lamb, saying: ‘For locals asking why I don’t want eagles in Dorset, killing our lambs and infesting our farmers…. These images say a thousand words. The photographer concerned, Peter Cairns, publicly contacted Mr Loder on Twitter to explain that he had used an already dead lamb to feed a captive eagle for an editorial article. The birds are introduced in Hampshire, not Dorset.

Eagles are predators of a wide variety of foods, mainly fish and birds, which abound in the waters around the Isle of Wight. Andy Lester, conservation manager for the Hampshire Ornithological Society, says: “These majestic hunters are not picky about where they find food and make do with fish scraps and dead meat. See one in general, however, and the remarkable panic unleashed among all sorts of birds reflects the power and eclectic tastes of the eagle.

In Scotland, farmers have long been wary of white-tailed eagles and their potential danger to lambs and other farm animals. While most studies have suggested they take very few lambs (less than 2% of lamb deaths were linked to eagles in one study, even where birds were common), a Scottish Natural Heritage report in 2019 has shown that there may be potential conflict. However, mitigation measures, such as moving eagles’ nests away from sheep farms (birds are basically sloths), can be very effective. Environmentalists say the effect on livestock in the Isle of Wight region, where there are so many other foods, is likely to be minimal.

Whatever the fears, the white-tailed eagle introduction project has obtained licenses from Natural England and it is illegal to kill or interfere with the birds.

Main image: © Dorset Police