Golden Eagles Struggle to cope with conditions in Ireland

Golden Eagles Struggle to Cope with the Conditions

The small Golden Eagle breeding population struggled to cope with the conditions in the Donegal Mountains in 2015. By and large the productivity of the Donegal breeding pairs will reflect the habitat conditions and associated live prey availability of their home ranges or territories. Human interference, either by disturbance or poisoning, has not been noted as a limiting factor with these pairs.


Image courtesy Terry Pickford

The weather in Donegal was even worse than the national pattern, which was clearly unseasonably wet and cold. But the weather alone may not have been the determining factor. If there was a better food supply within the territories of the 4 pairs, it is likely some chicks would have fledged in 2015.

In Summary, 4 pairs built nests, 3 of which laid eggs and two of these pairs hatched young. But all three breeding pairs failed and no new Golden Eagles were added to the population in 2015.
The Glenveagh pair laid eggs in the same nest they have used in recent years. But unfortunately the chick that hatched died after a week, during a spell of poor weather.

Our other established pair also had young but their breeding attempt failed when the chick was only 3 weeks old. And though the weather was wet at the time, it was quite disappointing to lose a chick at this age. A shortage of food availability locally may have been exacerbated by the poor weather and resulted in a weak and vulnerable chick.

The first time breeders, including a Donegal bred eagle, that first bred and failed in 2014, built a very good nest in 2015. It was arguably one of the best nests built in Donegal since the project started. A very solid and big nest was built on an ideal ledge – completely sheltered from the prevailing winds in the area. Unfortunately, shortly after the eggs were laid there were two days of severe hail storms from a northerly direction – which literally sandblasted the sitting female. The nest duly failed, just before the very warm and bright weather in mid April this year.

The fourth pair built a nest but failed to lay eggs.

It is very difficult to gauge the future trajectory of this small breeding population. Our oldest pair, now over 14 years old, may only have 3-5 years of chick rearing potential left before their breeding attempts begin to wane. We really need other pairs to come on stream quickly and start producing young consistently. We have always felt that 3-5 young a year would be required just to guarantee a small population, regardless of the need for gradual expansion outside of Donegal. To date our annual productivity has ranged from 0-3 birds annually. It is not enough.

So what can be done to secure the viability of Donegal’s eagles? Whilst a deteriorating weather pattern may be an increasingly limiting factor, our focus is most prominently on the habitat condition of the Donegal uplands. The Golden Eagle Trust feel that the conditions of the Donegal Mountains can be improved, if there are appropriate management tools in place. It is human actions that have shaped the limited capacity of our hills and we also have the same ability to improve the Hills of Donegal.

And therefore, we have come to the opinion that it is primarily the Department of Agriculture, who hold the key to improving the lot of the Upland eagles. Farm policies regarding upland vegetation is the key ingredient. Ultimately it is the farmers who do most active upland management. Unfortunately there is no exemplary demonstration site in Donegal to either explore how best to manage ‘farmed Uplands’ or actively manage particular upland habitats. There is a lot of damaged habit and some stable habitats, but there is very little habitat reflecting the true potential of Irish Upland wildlife.

And whilst it is true to say that the Eagles are not producing enough young in Donegal – that is basically another way of saying that the underlying condition of the Hills in Donegal is not in favourable conservation status. That would be a very serious admission or conclusion, which could have serious implications in terms of European commitments regarding Wildlife Directives, Windfarm planning applications, Cross Compliance measures of farm payments and forestry applications.

The situation is critical. The Golden Eagle Trust and many, many others are trying to influence and improve upland land management in Ireland in order to facilitate a small number of breeding Golden Eagles. Climate change may have an increasing role to play in annual productivity. We believe this population has the potential to stabilise and slowly increase, given the right management policies.

For those who believe that the population is doomed to fail, we say that it is vital that you state simultaneously that sustainable Irish

Upland land management has also failed. Because we are convinced that multi annual Golden Eagle productivity will reflect the conditions of their mountain homes. We are focussed on this potential – and will do our best to convince others of the value of sustainable Uplands, in the broadest sense.

The Golden Eagle Reintroduction Project is managed by the Golden Eagle Trust Limited in partnership with the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The programme seeks to reestablish a viable self-sustaining breeding population of golden eagles in north-west Ireland after an absence of almost 100 years. The main financial Sponsors of the Golden Eagle Reintroduction Project are

  • The Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government
  • EU LIFE Nature funding
  • The Heritage Council
  • The National Millennium Committee

We would also to acknowledge funding and sponsorship in kind from

  • KPMG
  • Údarás na Gaeltachta
  • Bank of Ireland
  • DID Electric

Read about the Irish Golden Eagle Trust HERE.

5 comments to Golden Eagles Struggle to cope with conditions in Ireland

  • Brian redpath

    Grate info on the eagles..pity ther cudnt be a big deer release programme also hares and grouse pheasant and plenty of them to help feed the beautiful eagles…thanks for sharing. …….

  • Harry Mac

    Surely conditions aren’t that much worse than the West of Scotland?

  • Réamaí Mathers

    That fact remains the most of our uplands are result of poor land management. A form of rewilding of key areas looking at balance between sheep and biodiversity would improve things. The view the uplands should not have trees is often erroneous. Glens, steep mineral slope river edges all would have supported scrub vegetation, hazel, mountain ash, willow, alder, aspen, birch etc. This in turn create islands of biodiversity increase mammalian population etc etc. This needs to be addressed in a ecosystem services approach, though I hate the jargon.

  • Please correct me if I’m wrong but surely there was a scientific assessment of suitable/sustainable food supply/habitat condition carried out before the Golden Eagle reintroduction programme went ahead?

  • It would be a crying shame to see this wonderful project grind to a halt through lack of commitment by the Dept of Agriculture or the NPWS. I note the GET’s comments on upland management and I think it is only fair to point out that the Trust through it’s project manager is very committed to the plight of the small hill farmer. There is much ado presently about the decline and depopulation of rural Ireland. Yet the Wild Atlantic Way is set to bring hundreds of thousands of visitors if the success of the first two years continues.

    The eagle could be another attraction for tourists in a well managed mosaic of rural farms. There needs to be a broad consensus to ensure the success of the golden eagle project as it’s benefits to the wider community is undeniable.