White-tailed eagles in Ireland

White-tailed eagle and poisoned lamb bait (Photo courtesy of former Strathclyde Police)

Since my visits to Ireland in 2009, when I did research on wildlife crime there for my book The Thin Green Line, I have taken a keen interest in Ireland’s wildlife, especially so the raptor species that have been re-introduced: the red kite, golden eagle and white-tailed eagle.

Dr Allan Mee, the project manager for the white-tailed eagle re-introduction, stated that 100 birds have been released over the past decade as part of a National Parks and Wildlife Service reintroduction project. That should have been great news for Ireland’s wildlife, tourism and general population. The bad news is that of those 100, 33 birds have since died, with poisoning responsible for 40% of those deaths.

This a tragic statistic, with farming interests likely to be the main culprits as opposed to game management in the UK. Though a couple of years is too short a period to judge, there has been some improvement, with no poisoned eagles since 2015 – at least none that have been found.

Reports in Ireland of white-tailed eagles taking live lambs have been scarce, if at all. It may be that in the earlier days of the re-introduction farmers were worried that this would happen and got rid of any eagles that appeared on their land.  With little or no lamb predation evident they may feel more relaxed and now leaving the eagles alone.

While I was wildlife crime officer I heard from the RSPB officer in charge of the east of Scotland white-tailed eagle release, probably around the third year of the project, that she had been speaking to a farmer in Perthshire who had seen one of the immature birds near to his sheep and lambs and was worried that he would start to lose lambs.  He made a threat that if the eagle came back he would shoot it. He contended that he would be justified in doing so, the same as he would be perfectly justified in shooting a dog that threatened his sheep.

The RSPB officer contacted me in a panic. I knew the farmer well and called on him. We had a cup of tea and a biscuit and talked about white-tailed eagles, the perceived threat to live lambs, and of course the penalty for harassing or killing a white-tailed eagle. The quiet chat worked; he agreed that there was nothing that the bird did that indicated it was about to take a lamb, and he gave me his word he would leave the eagles alone.

Let’s hope the farmers in Ireland are now of the same mind and the white-tailed eagles, which are already breeding in Ireland, continue to increase in number. As they have done on Mull and elsewhere in Scotland, they may in time become a huge benefit to the country’s economy through wildlife tourism.

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