Wings in the wind by Rachel French

A step away from the book reviews for one post, another review coming up very soon but in the meantime, back to a raptor topic! I’ve just received a copy of the quarterly Falconers and Raptor Conservation Magazine for which I wrote an article a good few years back. I met the editor himself whilst working as ranger and guide at Mull Eagle Watch this season and was asked to write something to follow up on my raptor persecution article. Of course I did so and am now thrilled to see it published in the Autumn edition. I thought I’d share it with everyone else, as falconry and raptor conservation isn’t a magazine on the regular shelf. Hope you enjoy this one, and feedback/comments would be appreciated.


Just a wee snap from the phone of the magazine

Wings in the wind

It was a day that could only be early spring, that particular feel only comes in early March, with life preparing to unfold for the new natural year. Everything felt new, clean, crisp. The air smelt fresh, clearing the mind. The sky was stark blue and the wind was biting cold, numbing my cheeks despite the tingling warmth of sunlight. Making use of an old picnic bench I stared up at that seemingly empty sky, patiently waiting. The breeze was good, perfect to give rise and lift, and give lift it did. Using the windy updraft four eagles rose from behind the crumbly mountain ridge, breaking the skyline. Shadows scrolled across the hillside below with the sun beating from above. Three of the birds showing an almost 7ft wingspan and a shining nape of molten gold were in battle. These were golden eagles, a renowned raptor found right across the northern hemisphere. The fourth bird hung in the sky, intimidating, dominating and altogether looking like it was in the wrong place. White feathers and yellow iris glinting in the sunlight, the white-tailed eagle looked on. Deigning the dispute to be unimportant, the bird rose up on the thermal, disappearing at a height too great for my eyesight.

Reintroduction and recovery

For many, the white-tailed eagle would be a bird they’d never get to see in the United Kingdom. Maybe with luck they’d catch up with a lone bird from Europe before it made off with haste back to safer lands. Now though, almost 40 years after the pioneering reintroduction programme began we can see the World’s fourth largest eagle in our skies once more. We have around 80 breeding pairs, although the majority are confined to West Scotland they are back, balancing at the top of our food chain alongside the secretive golden eagle. They cling to our highlands and islands, pushing to increase numbers and survive among man once more.

The Eagle Isle

I’m exceptionally lucky to live among these birds on the Isle of Mull, a large Hebridean island on the Scottish coast. Often referred to as “eagle island” Mull is a raptor stronghold, without the ongoing threat of illegal persecution, birds of prey can make the most of the plentiful prey in a variety of habitats. Not only can you see our two eagle species, but hen harriers quarter over the rough ground feeding on pipits and voles, buzzards scan lazily from telegraph poles and the blazon sparrowhawk makes regular meals of everything from a chaffinch to a rock dove. Mull is a birdwatchers paradise, not even considering the bountiful marine life or mammals like the mountain hare.

Hillside conflicts

Unfortunately not all of our raptors around the UK are faring so well and when they do, it seems not everyone is happy about it. Already we’ve heard calls for the white-tailed eagle to be controlled or culled altogether. This often comes from a minority of farmers across Scotland who still hold eagles responsible for loss of many lambs. The species is very capable of taking a few, although they’re lazy birds, preferring to minimise energy expenditure. Often road kill, deer ticks, poor winters, and predatory species like hooded crows and gulls are the original culprits, eagles coming in to steal away the remains of a now non-viable lamb. Hill farming only continues thanks to government subsidies and so the many benefits from the presence of eagles are enormous to the island of Mull, let alone the rest of Scotland. Studies in 2009 found the species generated £5 million per year for the isle – a vastly valuable income for a rural area historically limited to fishing and farming. Farming can continue with eagles in the air, often working alongside tourism for extra income, culling and control is not the answer.

Tough times

Despite the comeback of some, our once most common raptor, the kestrel is vanishing. The windhover could once be seen from car windows up and down every UK motorway, this is now a less common sight. They’ve declined by large figures, in Scotland by 67%. Showing a declining trend across the whole of Europe the kestrel is an amber listed species here in the UK. Many factors seem to be pushing this trend, from lack of nest sites, increased predation rate from recovering species like the goshawk and increased use of rodenticide. Another species, the hen harrier is facing extinction in England primarily due to ongoing illegal persecution, often tied with intensive moorland management for grouse despite having had legal protection since 1954.

Culling: not the answer to success

On the other hand our common buzzard and the sparrowhawk have both gone through a rapid increase over the last 30-40 years. Much of this will be down to less persecution than in previous years, although we all know it still happens! Again, in similarity with the recovering white-tailed eagle the buzzard has had to face calls for control, culling and lack of support from governing bodies. In 2012 DEFRA had been about to offer £400,000 to research the control of buzzard nest and egg destruction purely for the benefit of shooting estates but this was met with public outcry. Then, in 2013 Natural England secretly licensed this method of control to go ahead in order to protect a pheasant shoot.

Predator V Prey

As the sparrowhawk increased, becoming a familiar visitor to garden bird tables and a whoosh of air by your side when walking through local woodlands, many bird lovers rejoiced. Not all though; many people who profess to love wildlife and birds are often the nemesis of the bold raptor. I regularly hear stories of people rushing to chase away the sparrowhawk in their garden, disgruntled that the predator mistook the bird table for its own takeout. But, that’s just what it is; you’re providing healthy stocks of prey. Plenty of small birds mean plenty of bigger birds. We seem to think the sparrowhawk is going to eat everything, every last cute little robin. It won’t, because then it won’t have anything to eat. Without robins, blue tits, and chaffinches the sparrowhawk wouldn’t survive. So, often I find myself attempting to explain this, that culling hawks will not improve overall numbers of our garden and woodland birds. That really, we need to conserve their habitat, control overgrazing to support woodland undergrowth, improve insect habitat in our over tidy gardens and leave those dead leaves behind in the autumn. We’ll have even more cute little robins and even more bird table robbers.

Tainted success

Never could anyone tire of seeing the 8ft plus wingspan of a white-tailed eagle soar overhead, and maybe further into the future the species will take back more of its age old range across the UK. Hopefully it does, reclaiming southern coastlines, Norfolk broads and the Cumbrian Solway. Without doubt when it does, it will meet negative outcries, calls for management, control, killing and culling. It seems to be a reflex, an immediate reaction for so many of us now. Conservation success stories are forever met with disregard, outrage and a general lack of understanding. Red kites, buzzards, beavers and otters are all battling with this. After successfully returning to our land, some after hundreds of years of absence there will always be those who would happily throw them out again. Hopefully education will continue to improve things, so many of our younger generations are learning to love our wild areas and understand the environment – those against will soon be more of a minority.

This article has been republished here with the approval of the Author Rachel French

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