Rise, Fall & Rise of the White-tailed Eagle

February 27, 2010

Few people in Scotland are aware that on our north-west coast dwells one of the largest and most impressive birds of prey in the world.

But I was left in no doubt as to the majesty of the White-tailed Eagle (also known as the Sea Eagle) when one flew overhead on the coast of Wester-Ross last summer. Hundreds of feet in the air with its enormous 8 foot wingspan stretched out, this is a bird that commands appreciation.

Yet, far from being respected , the bird has faced ongoing hardship for centuries. Driven to extinction in the UK in the late 19th century, it was reintroduced to Western Scotland in 1975.

Despite having managed to increase gradually in number from 5 breeding pairs to 44 since its revival, persecution has been grim, occurring relentlessly year upon year. Still critically endangered, it faces deliberate poisoning by farmers and also the indirect threat of traps intended for other animals, such as foxes and crows. This seems to be the perpetual plight of the Eagle: relentless affliction, countered by a steely determination to survive.

The Eagle’s survival within the shores of Scotland would not have been possible without the tireless work of conservationists such as the RSPB (The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). The charity is currently being assisted by Forestry Commission Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage in a 3-year reintroduction programme to bring the bird, which has a diet consisting mainly of fish, back to its former range on the lochs and rivers of the Eastern Highlands. 60 birds, to be donated by the Norwegian government by 2011, are hoped to increase in number and eventually go on to populate much of Scotland, as they did almost two centuries ago.

As ever, the ambitious hope of the conservationists was countered by the incidence of persecution when one of the raptors was found dead on an Angus estate in August last year. Tayside police has faced strong criticism in the aftermath of the incident. ” There has been no rapid follow-up search under warrant… and no search for further evidence”, said a spokesperson for the RSPB. Depute Inspector Ally Waghorn, responded 6 months after the incident: “It is an absolute disgrace that the use of pesticides to kill what are seen by some as pest species continues in Scotland”.

The story of persecution, however common, is not mirrored everywhere. In February last year, a Police Officer was awarded a top wildlife award for setting up a scheme to conserve the Eagles on the Isle of Mull. Since 1991 the scheme has helped Mull to become the White-tailed Eagle capital of Scotland,  and the only area colonised without a notable incident of harm. Human endeavour has helped the bird to populate Mull in substancial numbers, but the main reason it has thrived, conversely, is the absence of people and farms.

It is hoped that the success of the Mull scheme can be emulated across other areas in Scotland, even those with much larger human populations than Mull. With a view to achieving that goal, the RSPB has set up a scheme to educate farmers, who, fearing predation of their livestock, are thought to be the main culprits in Eagle killings. Experts vehemently deny the claims of farmers that Eagles pose a risk to their livestock.

Misguided beliefs about the White-tailed Eagle have long existed. It has has long been shrouded in fable. It was once believed by Shetland fishermen that, as soon as the bird arrived, fish would appear at the water’s surface belly-up; it was also revered by Orcadian picts, who included its bones in burial ceremonies.

Short of reverence,the White-tailed Eagle needs only the regard that its magnificent presence commands.

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Visit Mallaig

February 23, 2010

As the road winds out of the steep mountain pass on this most beautiful of snow-covered crisp days, over the horizon appears the most striking of undulating, spired peaks. Surrounded by water and almost silhouetted by the low-lying winter sun, this is a sight to behold: Mallaig on the West Coast of Scotland.

With views as spectacular as seen on the road from Fort William to Mallaig, there is little wonder why this location was chosen for the filming of Harry Potter. In fact, the films were shot along the train-track which elegantly crosses over and under the 42-mile road several times. If you fancy a steam train experience, the ‘Jacobite’ is an excellent (if somewhat pricey from £31) experience and has been voted the most scenic train journey in the world. But we elect to drive today.

We start our journey at Fort William, in the shadow of Britain’s tallest mountain. For the first 10 miles of the journey, we enjoy amazing views of Fort William and Ben Nevis across Loch Eil. This view is magnificent- the one you see on postcards. The road snakes for some miles through a cosily narrow glen, walled by the mountains of Lochaber on either side. Unexpectedly, the glen opens up as we arrive at Glenfinnan. You could spend an entire day here as there are many things to do, but we opt to pay Glenfinnan Monument a quick visit. This imposing granite structure was erected in 1815 to mark the place where Bonnie Prince Charlie famously raised the standard of the Jacobite uprising. A wise choice of footwear is advisable- the car park was completely iced over when we visited, and can be susceptible to flooding in summer.

A few miles on, we reach Loch Eilt (not to be confused with Loch Eil), a peaceful haven in the heart of the mountains. This is a great place to eat lunch and take in the silence. Do keep your eyes peeled- eagles, red deer and even the elusive wildcat have been spotted here! Beyond Loch Eilt and the ancient pine trees that border it, we soon approach Loch Ailort and yet another postcard scene. This idyllic valley blesses you with amazing views that you will by now be coming to expect of this road. Just beyond the Loch, nestling in the hills, lies Polnish Chapel. This endearing little building sits all alone in the hills, except for the odd ‘Jacobite’ train rolling by . We decide not to stop here though, as the short winter day is wearing on and there are still more places to see on this trip before night falls.

A couple of miles on, the sharp, snow-dusted peaks of the isles of Rum, Eigg and Skye come into visibility. This is the view of the day. Superlatives wouldn’t do it justice, so I’ll invite you to drive to Mallaig and see it for yourself. This great view of the islands continues all the way along the next 7 miles of the road from Arisaig to Mallaig, which makes for enjoyable driving.

We soon arrive at our final pit-stop and the deepest lake in the whole of the British Isles, Loch Morar. Again, a beautiful loch, with pebble beaches and bordered by picturesque cottages on one side and vertical mountain faces on the other. We skim some stones on the water and marvel at the fact that this loch is deeper than the mountains are high. My eyes remain fixed on the Loch, even as we drive back towards our destination, drawn by its sailboats, islands and eery stillness .

With the sun reaching the horizon, we enjoy a hot drink at Mallaig, and reflect on a very pleasant day. You’ll enjoy it too.

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September 17, 2009

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