In 2019, we started a project together with the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation to reintroduce white-tailed eagles to England. Once widespread across the country, until human persecution wiped them out, the landmark conservation project is working to return these incredible birds.
Over the last four years the project has reintroduced the eagles from its base on the Isle of Wight and plans to release a total of 60 birds. It is hoped this will establish around 6-8 breeding pairs. It is early days but two pairs of eagles have formed bonds and begun to display signs of breeding behaviours.
Four years since the start of this ground breaking project, we caught up with white-tailed eagle project officer Steve Egerton-Read.
Moments of wonder
As project officer I receive emails every week from people lucky enough to have spotted a white-tailed eagle soaring through the sky. The joy of their sighting is palpable and the wonderful photos they share help us to monitor the bird’s progress, their favoured spots and behaviour.
Living on the Isle of Wight myself, I know that the resident eagle pair here are much talked about. As well as a great fondness for these birds, there is a real sense of pride amongst many in the community that the island is home to the white-tailed eagle project.
Since last summer, a number of eagles have become regular visitors to nearby Poole Harbour. A local charity, Birds of Poole Harbour run boat trips to help people understand the ecology of the world’s largest natural harbour. The trips highlight the magnificent bird life that can be found there which I’m proud to say, includes white-tailed eagles. I have been lucky enough to join some of these trips and witnessed visitors spotting white-tailed eagles for the first time. It’s fantastic to see the look of wonder and excitement on their faces.
Sightings of white-tailed eagles in the wild are critical to building up our understanding of how well they are settling into the landscape and adapting to challenges. This is demonstrated beautifully by the observations of a pair of white-tailed eagles in West Sussex. During the cold snap at the end of 2022, a member of the public captured stunning images of the pair G405 and G471 hauling fish out of the ice; a truly wonderful sight to see!
The eagles travel widely in their first few years, and this is reflected in other sightings shared with us. Beyond the south coast we have received reports of the birds from East Anglia, the West Country, the North-East, and as highlighted in a recent Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation blog, even from the Continent. We monitor their journeys using satellite trackers, but it is incredibly valuable to hear from someone who has seen and observed them on location.
A few years ago when the idea of reintroducing white-tailed eagles was first discussed, there were some concerns and questions about how this would work and the potential impact of the birds.
To help inform discussions, right from the beginning of the project we established a steering group and another group dedicated to monitoring the progress of the project. Members come from a wide range of backgrounds and interests, and we meet several times a year to share data, learnings and ideas.
As part of the monitoring and evaluation of the project, it is important that we assess the public’s attitudes towards the eagles. Last autumn we carried out a public perception survey. This was a repeat of a survey carried out in 2019 as part of the application process for a licence to release the birds.
The most recent survey results are incredibly encouraging. Overall, 93% of respondents were supportive of the project, compared to 86% in 2019, with all interest groups showing increased support.
However, a small number of people still have limited support for the project. Reasons given for this include a perception of the south of England being an unsuitable location for the return of the eagles, risk of persecution and the need to direct resources towards other projects.
The areas of the country with most increased levels of support were, perhaps unsurprisingly, those where the birds have been most visible. This includes the Isle of Wight, Dorset, Sussex and Hampshire. This shows just how powerful and emotive it is to spot one of these incredible birds in the wild. In fact, the presence of the eagles was ranked third in a list of reasons to visit the Isle of Wight.
The survey also suggests a growing interest in the reintroduction of lost species like the white-tailed eagles, with more than 90% of respondents interested in seeing further species reintroductions to southern England.
If you are lucky enough to see an eagle in the wild and would like to share your experience with us, the best way to do this is via the sightings form on the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation website.
As with all wildlife, if you do spot one of the eagles, please be sure to observe them from a distance and do not attempt to approach or disturb them. This is particularly important during the winter months when they are sedentary for a long time and disturbance may waste valuable energy. Always make sure you are on public rights of way and do not venture onto private land.