A beautiful white-tailed eagle has once again been a familiar sight for those fortunate enough to live in the flight path of eagles recently introduced to the Isle of Wight.
Thousands of Britons have witnessed and heard the gigantic two-metre wings beating overhead, as well as the cruel-beaked birds diving for fish in spectacular fashion. Seeing such a massive predator in the wild takes our breath away because we live in such a nature-depleted region.
Persecution by landlords was the major cause of the demise of white-tailed eagles in Britain in the early twentieth century. Britain’s largest bird of prey was shot at and poisoned by individuals seeking to safeguard their game birds.
Yet thanks to the work of conservationists, these raptors are now frequently spotted in the skies above the Isle of Wight and Scotland – and sometimes even further afield.
It’s the result of years of breeding programmes and negotiations with the Scottish and English governments.
But the tragedy that originally robbed us of perhaps our most awesome airborne predator looks as though it could repeat itself. Two of these giants have now been found dead on estates in Dorset and Sussex. While the cause of death has not been established, the multi-agency police investigation suggests that foul play could have been involved.
Currently, officers are conducting toxicology reports, suggesting they believe the eagles could have been poisoned.
Sadly, this is all too common. In 2020 there were 137 confirmed incidents of raptor persecution, according to RSPB figures. However, these are only instances where a body is found quickly enough to determine the cause of death. Many more tagged birds of prey simply disappear, never to be seen again. A 2019 study found that of 58 hen harriers tagged over 10 years, 72% were either “confirmed to have been illegally killed or disappeared suddenly with no evidence of a tag malfunction.”
Gamekeepers have previously been found to be behind the poisoning of our raptors, as they prey on grouse and other birds stocked by estates for shooting parties. A bird of prey soaring above a shoot also makes the birds scatter, disappointing those who have paid to kill them. After a series of poisonings of rare white-tailed eagles on grouse estates in Scotland, the Scottish government took action, suspending general shooting licences in the hope it would reduce these crimes. But sources at the Home Office have told me it is very difficult to secure prosecutions for the crime of taking an endangered bird out of the sky.
And for many of the Conservative MPs who represent constituencies full of shooting estates and the homes of the landed gentry, wildlife crime is not a priority. Chris Loder, MP for West Dorset, has said that eagles are not welcome in his constituency and suggested that the police shouldn’t even be investigating their deaths.
He said: “Dorset is not the place for eagles to be reintroduced. I’m not challenging government for more money for Dorset so it goes on this. I don’t condone this at all, but I want Dorset police to focus on county lines rather than spend time and resources on this.” The local wildlife crime team pointed out to their representative that county lines gangs are not in their jurisdiction, that they work overtime to help Britain’s wildlife, and that wildlife crime is often linked to other serious crimes, including gun offences.
What message is Loder sending to those who want to kill wildlife in west Dorset? The MP has essentially given them a free pass, and signalled that eagles are not welcome in the skies above his constituency. And, despite what Loder says, eagles were not reintroduced specifically to Dorset; rather they flew out of the constituencies of wildlife-friendly MPs into those represented by the likes of Loder.
His constituents could benefit from the eagles if they were to be reintroduced – a study found that those released on the Isle of Mull in Scotland brought millions to the economy, as people travelled to see the birds and spent money in local businesses.
But his attitude perhaps comes as no surprise. Of the 10 biggest landowners in Dorset, eight are country estate owners, and many of these host shoots. This is not to say they had anything directly to do with the raptor deaths, but it perhaps shows why the MP is likely to consider the traditional concerns of the landed gentry over the right of everyday British people to enjoy wildlife.
The problem is, there is no way to meaningfully help these birds recover and properly repopulate in the UK if there are no real consequences for those who kill them. Unless those who own estates are properly held to account for poisoned birds found on their land – perhaps having their shooting licences suspended until they can get a handle on crimes occurring under their noses – this will likely keep happening.
There are few things that make me shake with anger more than the idea of a rare and magnificent bird curling up to die, a burning stomach full of poison, never to fly again. But even those who do not feel so strongly about this matter should take issue with the fact that criminals are getting away with destroying our wildlife and the country’s natural legacy, and we are seemingly powerless to stop it.
Until those who own estates are held to account for what happens on their land, I am afraid history may repeat itself and we may once again see our largest bird of prey silently slip into extinction.
This article by Helena Horton was first published by The Guardian on 15 February 2022. Lead Image: ‘Living in a nature-depleted country, seeing such a large predator in the wild takes the breath away.’ A white-tailed eagle, the UK’s largest bird of prey. Photograph: Mike Crutch/Forestry England/PA.
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