Kingdom's adopted eagle battles to survive threat of poisoning
Bird-watching tourism could be a real earner in Kerry -- if the birds of prey aren't killed off, writes Hilary A White
A group of 30 or so people is perched on a windswept hillside overlooking the wrinkled waters of Killarney's Lough Leane. All are waiting patiently with cameras and binoculars at the ready for any sign of movement from some coniferous trees a few hundred metres away.
It is now year four of the white-tailed eagle re-introduction project. By releasing 100 birds over a five-year period, the programme seeks to establish a breeding population of these large raptors in the area after an absence of more than a century.
On this cool Wednesday morning, nine of the 22 Norwegian eaglets that comprise this year's quota are being turned loose from acclimatisation pens into the wilds of the Kingdom.
The re-introduction of these eagles to Kerry, along with projects for the golden eagle in Donegal and red kite in Wicklow, will go down as an episode that highlighted some glaring inadequacies in Irish wildlife and agricultural laws. This has revealed itself in the confirmed poisoning of a total of eight white-tailed eagles, and suspected poisoning of two others. This spring alone, three birds were found in a four-week period.
On our way up to the release site near Beaufort outside Killarney, Project Manager Dr Allan Mee stresses that the poisonings are most likely accidental. The real target is foxes during the lambing season, he says, and if farmers really wanted to do away with the eagles, they would poison outside of the lambing season, or use shotguns. But the long and short of it is that no farmer should be using poisons whatsoever.
"The critical thing is that all this poisoning is illegal," he explains. "We know now --and this only came to light recently -- that there is not a single poison registered for use in targeting foxes. The only legal poisons that are being used are rodenticides -- they're approved and licensed for use on rats, but are illegal for foxes. So there's a big anomaly here."
I ask him which department handles the legislation of poisons and he laughs wearily. "Funny old thing. It's like an Irish solution -- or lack of solution -- to an Irish problem. The legislation regarding the use of poisons for pest birds like crows is governed by the Department of Environment, whereas the use of poisons for foxes is governed by the Department of Agriculture. So, when [Minister for the Environment] John Gormley changed the legislation to ban the use of meat baits for crows two years ago it still didn't affect the use of poisons for foxes. The law definitely needs to be changed. We need one body looking at this, not two."
Currently, Mr Gormley is seeking to address this inconsistency in the legislation that will bring Ireland more into line with other EU countries that have longstanding bans on poisoned meat baits. But the Golden Eagle Trust Ltd, which oversees the re-introduction projects, has been calling for these changes for 10 years now.
In December of last year, it lodged an official complaint to the European Commission Directorate General over Ireland's failure to protect its birds of prey. Although yet to receive an official response, the Government faces hefty fines if found to have been negligent in its protection of birds of prey and other species.
"The eagle re-introductions have shed light on a problem that's been around for a long, long time," Dr Mee continues. "Basically, we've been poisoning other wildlife but we've never paid any heed to it because nobody was out there finding these dead animals. These eagles have transmitters on them so we can find them, where other wildlife, like pine martens, scavenging on poisoned carcasses, die and are never going to be found. It's unquantifiable the effect these poisons have had on other wildlife."
Back on the hillside, someone raises their voice and points at the treeline. Out through the treetops comes a sight to stir the soul. One after another, the young eagles gradually venture out on their maiden flight, their strength tested by a stiff south-westerly. Most glide slowly down to the large lakeside woods below. One, however, climbs up above us on the breeze, becoming a silhouette in the sky and eliciting wows from her captivated audience.
Among the crowd is Det Garda Patrick Kelliher. Although unable to comment on a case brought against an individual in relation to the May poisonings, he tells me about a community meeting held in their aftermath. It sought to bring together groups such as the Irish Farmers Association, Teagasc and the Golden Eagle Trust to navigate a way forward from this major setback.
"We wanted to see could some sort of pilot scheme be set up where farmers who have a problem with foxes, instead of putting down poison, could use another mechanism like electric fencing," he explains. This is now being examined.
Later in the day, I accompany Dr Mee and an associate out on a boat in Lough Leane. He brings a sika deer carcass, culled by Killarney National Park as part of their deer management programme. This will be the first of many feeds to get the eagles going over the next few months. On our way back, I ask him if he still fears for the future of the re-introduction scheme and he responds quickly. "Yeah, absolutely I have concerns about the viability of the project. We've lost 14 birds out of 55 released since the start, and eight to 10 of those are from poison. So if you took away poisoning we'd have a very low mortality rate. We certainly went through a bad period in those few months this spring and I'm not sure the project can sustain that kind of a loss long-term."
Success, however, would bring more to the south-west than just biodiversity. As a sluggish tourism season winds down, some are looking to the eagles' eventual foothold as another string to the region's bow. Niall Huggard, general manager of the Lake Hotel, describes the eagles' impact as 'unbelievable'.
"This week," he enthuses, "the enquiries we're getting for the new eagles being released is huge. We have people arriving next week just to see them. They've also helped in tourism for the boatmen in Ross Castle. There's a business building around the eagles. Anything that helps in tourism has to be good. They're going to help create jobs. It's embarrassing the poisoning is happening in Ireland, but it's exceptionally embarrassing it's happening in Kerry."
Eagle watching is worth roughly €3m to the Isle of Mull in Scotland, where a similar re-introduction took place 35 years ago. Mr Huggard, however, estimates it would be worth a lot more to a place like Killarney. "It's accessible, there's infrastructure and with the whole Irish welcome... If we could guarantee people that they'd see eagles, we could guarantee customers. Simple as that," he says.
Dr Mee agrees: "Mull is a small island -- we're talking about 100,000 or so visitors a year. Muckross House gets about half a million. And Killarney's only one place -- we have a pair of birds down near Waterville, for example, so the benefits could be widespread. We just have to make a clean break from poisoning."