A Fieldworker’s Guide to the Golden Eagle by Dave Walker is an amazing study of golden eagles over several decades. It almost seems that the author can think like an eagle, yet he admits there are many aspects of a golden eagle’s activities that remain a mystery. He challenges some of the views held by other eagle experts and in many respects he may be correct to do so. The author claims that the opinions of others are not always based on sufficient evidence. As a retired police officer I can appreciate this stance. I suspect that the author is looking for evidence ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, whereas some of the beliefs he challenges may be more akin to ‘on the balance of probabilities’. In particular, I subscribe to his view that a licence (from SNH or the equivalent in constituent countries of the UK) ‘is not an excuse to visit nests: a licence holder still has to give a legitimate reason to visit a nest and can cause damaging disturbance and commit the offence of reckless disturbance even if they are holding the licence in their hand at the time’.
Walker goes into great detail on what may constitute disturbance. Having been involved in a golden eagle disturbance trial I know how difficult even reckless disturbance is to prove; intentional disturbance much more so. With the author’s experience he is certainly a potential expert the police should keep in mind and I will discuss this with the National Wildlife Crime Unit in due course.
Reading the chapters on eagle breeding I was amazed at how many pairs fail to breed, fail at the egg stage, fail to fledge any chicks and also the risks to fledged young. Apart from the predation of egg thieves and deliberate persecution (neither of which are discussed in the book at great length) it is a wonder we have any eagles at all. The author has a similarly pessimistic view of the number of pairs of eagles in Scotland, ‘about 400 pairs in the survey years plus an unknown and variable number of singletons. ..although it is not evident from the published results, each survey year probably had fewer pairs than the last. There is probably a documented decline in the number of golden eagles and this probably began in 1982’.
The author is of the belief that for persecution to stop, driven grouse shooting would need to cease. His perspective is interesting in that as a consequence the dichotomy is that good quality habitat with good food resources may convert to other land uses not as suitable for the golden eagle. He is also critical of the various golden eagle ‘recovery’ projects (removals to Ireland and the south of Scotland) commenting that they should be shelved ‘in favour of investigating and addressing the reasons for low productivity in the majority of the population’.
I was fascinated by the chapter on nests. I have little more knowledge about golden eagle ecology than most people but it was my belief that a pair of eagles would start to build up a nest around January/February for that year’s breeding. Not so. The author has observed eagles refurbishing nests at all times of the year, which is not necessarily evidence of a breeding attempt or even the involvement of a pair of eagles. This is only one of many, many revelations in this incredibly detailed book.
I was also of the view (by reading; not from experience) that eagles didn’t fly in the dark, which is also contradicted by the author. (Though this incident is not referred to in the book I wonder if that makes any clearer how, in 2012, the golden eagle with two broken legs suspected to have been caused by being caught in a trap, got from a driven grouse moor in Glenesk to a layby near Aboyne in Aberdeenshire, in darkness, sometime between 9.00 pm and 4.00 am. Was it driven there or did it fly?)
Altogether a fantastic book which has increased my knowledge of golden eagles immensely. I’m sure even the most experienced eagle-watchers will learn something, or at the very least question their knowledge.
A Fieldworker’s Guide to the Golden Eagle. £19.99
Whittles Publishing Ltd, Dunbeath, Caithness, KW6 6EG