From protests to partnerships: How farmers are supporting the reintroduction of the White-tailed Eagle

The arrival of the first White-tailed Eagle chicks in over 100 years into the country sparked controversy and even a protest at the airport. However, a decade since the White-tailed Eagle Reintroduction Programme began, a partnership approach with farmers has helped dispel myths, allay the fears and strengthen the success of the project

An adult White Tailed Eagle catches a fish to feed her chicks. Photo:Valerie O'Sullivan
An adult White Tailed Eagle catches a fish to feed her chicks. Photo:Valerie O'Sullivan
Dr Allan Mee observing the White-Tailed Eagle nest from a safe distance on Lough Lein, Killarney, Co Kerry. Photo:Valerie O'Sullivan/White Tailed Eagle Project
Majella O'Sullivan

Majella O'Sullivan

They were native to the land but had become extinct here due to the efforts of their main predator - man.

When the idea of reintroducing the White-tailed Eagle after an absence of almost a century was first mooted, it caused huge controversy and drew vehement opposition from farming organisations.

Firstly, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and Golden Eagle Trust had to tackle the logistical challenges. Reintroducing the Golden Eagle and the White-tailed Eagle, both of which had become extinct in Ireland, was a priority.

The reintroduction of the former in Donegal in 2001 with chicks from Scotland was logistically simpler. They had to look further afield to Norway for a supply of White-tailed Eagle chicks.

Other considerations included the funding that would be required and where this would come from, and even how many chicks would be required.

Dr Allan Mee, project manager of the White-tailed Eagle Reintroduction Programme, got involved in 2007, having recently returned to Ireland from California, where he had been doing a post-doctoral study at San Diego Zoo on another magnificent bird of prey, the California condor, the largest flying bird in North America.

With over 30 years' experience with birds since his initial degree in Zoology, he had previously worked with Lorcan O'Toole, the general manager of the Golden Eagle Trust and project manager of the Golden Eagle Reintroduction Programme.

Having grown up on a dairy farm in Ballyorgan, Co Limerick, he had some insight into the views of the farming community.

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"We would have been aware of what the perceptions might be in the farming community about releasing eagles into the wild and they had some experience of this in Donegal in 2001, so by the time the project started in Kerry, there was five or six years' experience of what to expect," he told Farming Independent.

Bringing chicks by ferry from Scotland was far more straightforward than flying them in from Norway, a country that has a strong population of the bird.

Dr Allan Mee observing the White-Tailed Eagle nest from a safe distance on Lough Lein, Killarney, Co Kerry. Photo:Valerie O'Sullivan/White Tailed Eagle Project
Dr Allan Mee observing the White-Tailed Eagle nest from a safe distance on Lough Lein, Killarney, Co Kerry. Photo:Valerie O'Sullivan/White Tailed Eagle Project

White-tailed Eagles are still considered rare in Europe and are 'green-listed' for conservation purposes though populations have been on the increase, helped by reintroduction projects like those in Ireland and Scotland. It's estimated there are less than 10,000 breeding pairs in Europe.

In 2006, three Norwegian experts were brought over to evaluate the proposed release site, Killarney National Park in Co Kerry.

The following year, the first 15 chicks were collected from nests in western and central Norway, under licence, and flown to Ireland where their arrival at Kerry Airport was greeted by 100 protesting sheep farmers.

Reservations

Irish Farmers' Association regional development officer William Shortall explains the reservations farmers had.

"There was a huge lack of information and inaccurate information about the White-tailed Eagle, which can have a wing span of up to eight feet (over 2m or 6ft on average), and this was something that hadn't been seen in Ireland for a long time. He was a predator by nature," Mr Shortall said.

"There had been a pair of birds in Mull in Scotland causing problems that had taken about 86 lambs so there was a genuine concern among sheep farmers this bird could be feeding on lambs.

"They had enough to worry about with foxes and grey crows than eagles too and that all fed into the negative publicity."

Designation is still a huge issue for the IFA with huge areas designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) for the hen harrier, and there was widespread concern the reintroduction of another species could lead to more.

By January 2007, Dr Mee had come on board as manager of the White-tailed Eagle Project and this was when they had to complete all the paperwork to bring the birds into Ireland.

Public meetings were organised in south Kerry to meet with the farming community and to talk to them about what was involved.

"There was a fair bit of controversy and the feeling was to try to get people on board and bring farmers to Donegal to show them how the Golden Eagle reintroduction project was working after six years," Dr Mee recalls.

"The worry the eagles would predate lambs in sheep farming areas was high on the agenda, and this was also around the time a lot of land was being designated as Special Protection Areas."

It was also felt the introduction of the birds would interfere with windfarm planning applications.

"It was feared the White-tailed Eagle would bring another layer of bureaucracy," he said.

"We were trying to reassure people they'd been reintroduced to Scotland and had been there since 1975 and there still hadn't been a special protection area designated because there wasn't the need for one. There wasn't a high density of breeding pairs."

Looking back on it now, he describes those initial meetings as 'confrontational'.

From an initial stance of being against the project, IFA and the ICMSA later got involved in the steering committee, which was instrumental in allaying these fears.

"The hotel industry was a major supporter of the project but we could see nothing in it for the farmer except another threat," Mr Shortall added.

"I don't think there would be many farmers out there now who have a problem with it and most would have a neutral to positive view.

"A lot of farmers feed information into the project team of sightings of the bird."

The first chicks arrived in late June 2007, when they were between six to 10 weeks and old enough to be taken from the wild under licence.

GPS transmitters

After an initial holding period during which they were tagged and had GPS transmitters attached, the birds were released in the national park when they were between 12 and 17 weeks old.

The following year, 20 were released. There was the same amount in 2009, with a further 22 in 2010 and 23 in 2011.

In total 100 chicks, 51 males and 49 females, were released into the wild over five years. The majority have stayed within five to 50km of the release site and most have nested in Kerry with some migrating to Cork, Clare and Galway.

"On average, a quarter of birds die through natural causes in their first winter but once they started to disperse, we realised poisoning was a real issue for them," Dr Mee added.

"We lost several birds in those first few years to poisoning. In 2007 poisoning was still legal and wasn't banned until 2010.

"Dead animals are a lifeline for wildlife during winter but when poison is put on top of it, it doesn't only kill foxes and crows, it's indiscriminate and kills anything that feeds on the carcass including birds and White-tailed Eagles, particularly young birds, scavenge quite a lot."

After being released in August, the first eagle was lost in October to poisoning but most of the losses were in the following spring when three were poisoned.

Of the 100 introduced, 14 have been lost to poisoning with poisoning suspected in a number of other eagle deaths. Three were hit by wind turbines, two were shot, one collided with a power line and a couple died of natural causes.

"Raising awareness about the threat of poisoning was very effective and we formed a steering group with Teagasc, the IFA, ICMSA and An Garda Síochána. We also published information leaflets about the alternatives to poisoning and these did have an effect.

"We haven't had a poisoning incident in three years and we haven't had a dead eagle since 2015," he said.

The first nesting in the wild happened in 2012 and the first successful fledging was in 2013.

"The project has started to grow again because since 2013 we've had chicks coming in, so now we've had 21 chicks from nests in Ireland, as many as was released from Norway in one year, and we know the survival chances of chicks bred in the wild is much better," Dr Mee said.

The next milestone will be when those wild birds produce chicks themselves and from next year the population of White-tailed Eagles should have that capability - the grandchildren of the first chicks that were reintroduced.

"That will be the best sign of success and at the moment it's looking optimistic," Dr Mee says.

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