Could the Golden Eagle make a return to the English Lake District?

For the 11th season in a row the pair of osprey have returned from their winter quarters in Africa to breed in northern Cumbria, attracting tens of thousands of people to come and watch them in the spring and summer, bringing an estimated £2m into the local economy each year.

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Haweswater in the winter with Harter fell in the Distance

But travel a few miles east and the site of what use to be another major natural attraction is much quieter these days. It seems all eyes and binoculars are focused on the ospreys while the solitary golden eagle at Haweswater is largely now forgotten.

There is a history of things disappearing in the Haweswater Valley. The valley formally surrounding the isolated village of Mardale was flooded here in the 1930’s to create a reservoir used to supply drinking water to Manchester.

The silence and solitude this created is one reason why golden eagles, a creature highly sensitive to human disturbance, moved into the valley in the late 1950’s when at that time the late Derek Ratcliffe located the first occupied eyrie at the head of Haweswater in 1957.

There have been three pairs of eagles here in the past forty odd years. One pair were together for 22 years. Since the last female died in 2004, Haweswater’s single male has performed his spectacular aerial displays alone. But experts say prospects of  him finding another partner may be slim. John Miles who lives at Castle Carrock is an environmental campaigner and author of several books about Cumbrian birds.  He feels the best chance for Haweswater’s male, now middle-aged at 13, would be if a female golden eagle came south from Scotland just 30 miles to the north across the Solway. The offspring of a pair from Dumfries and Galloway has been radio-tagged and traced flying near Langholm, just 15 miles north of the border.

Could this bird –named Roxy- be a prospective partner for the Haweswater male? Unlikely despite the name, Roxy is a male. “If it had been a female there was a possibility it could have migrated down into Cumbria,” says John. “ We’re hoping that in time a female eagle will turn up”. “The male eagle displays madly each spring. He’ll go high up into the sky several hundred feet before dropping like a stone with folded wings like a dart towards the valley floor. It’s called Sky Dancing.

The potential for eagles in the Lake District now is far greater than when the first pair turned up in the valley 44 years ago. The numbers of sheep in the high fells of the Lake District have been significantly reduced. Vegetation is now beginning to recover from years of over-grazing, so there are more species like rabbit for eagles to predate. Sheep and rabbit are certainly important factors in the wellbeing of golden eagles, but of course people hold the most influence.

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Three RSPB members visiting the nesting valley 20 years ago

Eagles will from time to time take lambs when their normal prey is in short supply. However the golden eagle will also scavenge upon dead lambs, deer and other carrion found on the high mountains and fells. Some farmers and landowners object strongly enough to take the law into their own hands and kill the birds. With the arrival of sheep farming in the Lake District in the early part of the eighteenth century the future for the golden eagle in the region became bleak. By 1790 all eagles including the white-tailed eagle had been eliminated throughout the whole of Cumbria and the rest of northern England.

In the early 1960’s an immature passage golden eagle was found dead in a gin-trap which had been laced with the remains of a dead animal near Tebay. In the 1970’s a second female eagle was shot off her nest with a rifle near Shap. A third golden eagle was poisoned in the Scottish Boarders in 2007, by someone apparently oblivious or who did not care about the financial rewards which can be reaped from tourism.

John says Britain is the worst place in the world for killing birds of prey, with shooting and poisoning of these iconic species is still a big problem. Mankind is also responsible for less obvious threats.  Afforestation removes eagles’ habitat by completely destroying the biodiversity, which in turn results in the disappearance of most if not all prey species. A similar thing is taking place on Red Grouse moors in England but in a different way, here all the raptors are being destroyed to enhance the numbers of Red Grouse, on some moors to unnatural densities. Also an increase in the numbers of tourists disturbs eagles in some instances. Wind turbines are thought to deter eagles from nesting and also kills them in large numbers. “There has been a massive destruction of golden eagles for example in parts of America and Spain”, says John.  Eagles and other large raptors like vultures fly through the blades. At the Altamont Pass wind farm near Los Angeles, over 2600 golden eagles have been killed in just 25 years. In Scotland estate owners are killing birds of prey, but in particular the golden eagle in order to obtain planning approval before they are allowed to install wind farms on their property. There are no laws at present that prevent wind farms being installed in areas where golden eagles currently exist. But an Eagle’s presence will make an application less likely to succeed, hence their illegal removal by estates.

These landowners are a law unto themselves. The number of people successfully prosecuted for killing birds like golden eagles is very small. John says wind turbines also disrupt the landscape, frightening eagles away from the area.

While these issues affect Scotland’s golden eagles they do not explain why Haweswater’s male – in a National park and wind turbine free – has been so far unable to entice a mate into the territory. Spike Webb is an RSPB warden at Haweswater. He says that a female could come down from Scotland – that’s where Haweswater’s male originated from 10 years ago. But he feels it’s unlikely. “This male came down in 2001 and replaced the old male, It could happen any day. Young eagles wander. It would be a juvenile bird that would come south.” “But there aren’t many and they’re taking up just a small part of south Scotland.” “There’s no particular need for them to leave that area and fly south.”

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Female adult Golden Eagle on guard close to her eyrie

If golden eagles won’t settle in Cumbria how about introducing them? That has happened in north-west Ireland where the Golden Eagle Reintroduction Project is seeking to re-establish a breeding population after an absence of almost 100 years.

The scheme has partly been funded by the Irish government and the European Union. John Miles is among those who feel a similar project could work in Cumbria. Spike Webb has his doubts. “The lack of golden eagles here is telling us the Lake District isn’t suitable. There are too many people. Disturbance would be a big factor.”

The Lake District could potentially hold up to 12 pairs if it was quit with plenty of prey. Lack of food is one reason why the old pair stopped breeding.

Chris Collet of RSPB Northern England says: “I don’t think there’s much chance of a female flying over, but never say never.” “We don’t have any reintroduction schemes for golden eagles.” “If we were to do a reintroduction scheme we would think about whether a species used to colonise a particular location and what impact a reintroduction would have on the local eco-systems and on businesses and the economy, also if we think it could be sustainable.” “Would the landscape support this species?” “And there’s cold hard economics.”” Is it a priority?” “Reintroduction schemes cost hundreds of thousands of pounds and require a great many partnerships. I can’t see any particular reason against it on ecological grounds but I’m not sure how many golden eagles the Lake District could support. Birds of prey do need a fair range of territory.”

John Miles remains convinced that golden eagles could thrive in the lakes, and that they should be encouraged to do so. “It’s very sad the way things are now, I think RSPB members should encourage reintroduction.” “There use to be a bit of a pilgrimage every spring to see the golden eagles. Haweswater has become a dead area compared to Bassenthwaite.”

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The last eaglet to fledge from the Haweswater eyrie was in 1996

Despite their differences, Cumbria’s bird lovers are united in appreciating what is in the skies as well as lamenting what isn’t. Says Spike Webb: The positive is that we’ve still got an eagle here. 

16 comments to Could the Golden Eagle make a return to the English Lake District?

  • Mike Price

    I feel I should comment, just to say what a delight it was to see the Haweswater Golden Eagle, we were staying in Morecambe this summer and although it was over an hour away I felt I should make the effort to see Englands last Golden Eagle and we weren’t disappointed, the kids were entranced.
    A magnificent area and a magnificent bird, such a shame he has no partner and a real pity there aren’t more Golden Eagles in England.

  • harrier man

    I personally think there should be female birds reintroduced into the Haweswater valley. They have bred there successfull for many years and think the RSPB are wrong regarding the cost, i worked with the RSPB at this site in the early nineties and remember large numbers of people visiting and recruited to their ranks at the watchpoint im sure well worth the effort that is what the RSPB is about is it not?

    • Dave Walsh

      The RSPB realised they are much better off not having any golden eaqles to worry about at all in the Lake District this is why they will not be welcomed back with open arms. Too much trouble.

      • barbaryboy

        RSPB? waste of time! just a propoganda machine looking to make money, sooner the old ladies feeding thier blue tits realise this the sooner real conservation can start. bunch of no hopers as far as im concerned.wont give them the time of day, most of thier “experts” monitoring raptor sites know nowt but they are so big and “well respected”that our illoustrious government in all thier wisdom seem to beleive all the crap they talk. but i predict that they will have thier day eventually and common sense will prevail. then conservation can begin. (hopefully)

  • barbaryboy

    it would definatly be worth relocating some goldies into the lakes in my opinion, allso what about northumberland? we have had them breed here on and off for years,there are currently several individuals just “hanging around” one that i know of has even built a nest? never mind ireland, lets maximise the potential here.

  • paul williams

    Eagles come into conflict with landowners who have sheep farms, Peregrines and Hen Harriers come into conflict with landowners who own grouse moors. Natural England’s Hen Harrier recovery project in the Forest of Bowland has failed miserably.The RSPB will not introduce a female to the lone male at Haweswater simply because of the conflict it will cause.

  • barbaryboy

    when oh when oh when will the government and sad individuals realise that the RSPB is trying to be a law unto itself? and sadly succeeding? thier a propaganda machine looking to ignorant joe public and old grannies to feed the coffers of the beast that is the RSPB, i wholeheartedly agree with previous comments that its not in thier interests to have small numbers of high profile “rare ” species nesting in new places were they would have to appear to be protecting them? this would be an unnessesary drain on funds much better used to promote un needed projects that create much better press!

  • Circus maximus

    If the eagle population was allowed to expand in sw scotland then the lake district would recolonise naturally. If you could get 5-6 nests(reasonable target) fledging 1 every two years then expansion into England would happen and it would be sustainable. Imagine eagle competing for teritory…

  • gamehawker

    A couple of covert releases of Goldie’s into England could be done easily,on the hush so to speak to counter any detrimental actions by the disgruntled that could endanger the eaglets at a release site,,but oohh no that goes against the publicity hungry RSPB machine,they would want to lap up the whole lot,they have gone well beyond a conservation organisation now people are not renewing there memberships, BTO or birdlife int are much better orgs to spend your hard earned coin,they will throw heaps of cash at you if your a southern bustard the mind boggles..

  • Andy

    As much as I’d love to see eagles in the lakes, I think its best to let it happen naturally. As Circus maximums says, if persecution north of the border is reduced then they will recolonise anyway.

    Don’t understand the anti-RSPB comments at all. Of course they need publicity, thats how they get the money to buy vast areas of land to protect as reserves. And conservation won’t get anywhere unless it gets “Joe Public” involved and keeps ordinary people interested in wildlife.

  • CECIL

    I’ve been reliably informed that several pairs of Golden Eagles ARE nesting in the Lake District but the RSPB is keeping it quiet for fears of disturbance.

  • Abe

    I knew of another pair breeding a few year back, near a very busy area, so much for them being disturbed by humans.

    Editor’s Comment. Abe what happened to the pair in the end then?

  • MJ

    thats how they get the money to buy vast areas of land to protect as reserves. And conservation won’t get anywhere unless it gets “Joe Public” involved and keeps ordinary people interested in wildlife.
    end quote

    I’ve just been watching Wartime Farm – I wonder if we could ever produce enough food again with all this land being taken out of farming?

  • Abe

    One of my brother in laws had been watching them for about 2 years from a caravan site, he told another B in law who went up there and saw it a few times .
    Once he was approached by a guy in a jeep ( pesumably a warden or ranger ) who asked what he was watching, after a few minutes arguing that there were no eagles in this valley he then admitted that there was a pair in there but that it should be kept quiet, this was about 2000ish and he’s not seen them since.

    • Kerry

      Just seen your comment regarding Golden Eagle sighting. My husband and i saw a Golden Eagle last April. We were driving from Bowness side of windermere towards Winster Valley it was perching. Fed up of people telling me we didn’t see it. We did!

      Editor’s Comment, Hi Kerry, are you able to provide more details of the site where you saw the eagle perched please? A grid ref would be ideal. We presume you were driving south with lake Windermere on your right towards Newby Bridge?

  • Caroline Langham

    I was out walking Loughrigg last week with friends and we are convinced we saw two golden eagles soaring high above us and then gliding in and around Loughrigg fell.
    I got a pic but too pixelled to make it out, but we think they went as high as 6000ft into the clouds at times. We have a local buzzard – Definitely not him! They never flapped just effortlessly soared on the thermals.
    Has anyone else heard of any sightings lately in the Lakes?