Where eagles dare: finding out about Wales’ latest wildlife reintroduction project with Eagle Reintroduction Wales’ manager Sophie-lee Williams

Wales boasts some spectacular nature but, for the last few hundred years at least, it has been of the tamer, gentler variety by world standards. This may be about to change as a project to reintroduce those kings of the skies – eagles – to the Welsh moorland, mountains and coasts, gains momentum. We swoop at the chance to catch up with the project manager of Eagle Reintroduction Wales (ERW), Dr Sophie-lee Williams, to learn more about plans to return these mighty birds of prey to our horizons.

What first made you interested in leading a project on reintroducing eagles to Wales, Sophie-lee? 

I’ve been captivated by birds of prey from a young age. As a little girl I spent a lot of time in the uplands around my home in South Wales Valleys watching the likes of kestrels, buzzards and red kites. I started volunteering in a bird of prey sanctuary in Ebbw Vale as a teenager which sparked my passion to learn more about our British raptors. In conjunction with my hands on experience with raptors in a captive setting I was also enrolled on a Zoology course at Cardiff University – this is when I started to realise that I could make a difference. I started designing my own research to learn more about wild raptors in Wales. My work on Welsh raptors led me to be introduced to the notorious Roy Dennis who offered me a research project on golden eagles in Scotland. Roy has been a mentor and close friend ever since! He explained to me that eagle reintroductions in Wales have been suggested for many decades but so far no action had been taken. So, when I come back to Wales I decided to take the initiative to launch a feasibility study assessing the possibility of restoring both the golden and white-tailed eagle back to the skies of modern Wales.

Why is such a project important?

Both the golden and white-tailed eagle are a missing component of Welsh biodiversity, culture and heritage. By restoring these species, we are not only restoring native-lost species but lost ecosystem functions. Eagles are important top-order species which bring wider benefits to biodiversity and habitat health in upland, coastal and wetland habitats.

We are now in the middle of a nature and climate emergency. Restoring eagles will place Wales as a leading country in terms of its progressive stance towards biodiversity and ecosystem restoration. More importantly, it will create resilient ecosystems so that future generations in Wales can enjoy them as many as us have been lucky enough to do. Additionally, both eagles are a conservation concern: restoring these species to their historic ranges will help the long-term survival of these magnificent birds.

What effect would reintroducing eagles have on other wildlife?

We do not expect to see any quantifiable negative impacts on our native wildlife in Wales. An eagle’s main ecological role is to keep prey numbers in balance. Eagles assist prey populations by weeding out the slow, weak, injured and dying prey – strengthening the general health and gene pools of native biodiversity. By limiting the population growth of the most abundant prey populations eagles can also assist in creating new spaces for a more complex array of species. Eagles can provide this balancing service faster on the wing than any other terrestrial predator, so overall the effect on wildlife in Wales would be positive.

Historically, were there eagles here in Wales, what caused the decline of their population?

It is clear that both golden and white-tailed eagles were formerly widespread across Britain before suffering intense persecution during the middle ages, which led to their unprecedented decline and extinction by the early 19th century. An analysis of place-names, observational data and archaeological records from our recent research indicates a widespread eagle distribution throughout Wales, with earliest archaeological records dating back to the Neolithic period over 6,500 years ago and breeding records dating up to the 18th century. Like many birds of prey, eagles were relentlessly persecuted: there were widespread European bounty payments in the latter middle ages to eliminate these species, which led to the extinction of these birds in Wales. Both species were eradicated entirely by the influence of humans.

Is it a myth that farmers need to be worried about their sheep were eagle reintroduction to go ahead?

The issue of livestock predation, especially lambs, is a vexed one. Many farmers regard eagles as a lamb-killing menace. Conservationists, meanwhile, debate that this is a myth perpetuated by anecdote and a lack of understanding that fuels misguided persecution of the birds. There are many examples across Britain where these birds have no conflict with farmers. For example, there have been no recorded lamb predation in Ireland since both eagle species were reintroduced 15 years ago. Neither has there been any conflict since the release of golden eagles to southern Scotland or white-tailed eagles to the Isle of Wight and southern England.

The conflict seems to arise in Scotland where these birds are now reaching environmental carrying capacity and competition is high for resources (i.e. food, nest sites, space). In Scotland, certainly eagles do eat lambs: prey remains found at nest sites provide irrefutable evidence of this. But research has shown that the great majority of such remains have been scavenged – preying upon lamb carcasses. This is hardly surprising when 30% of lambs in the Highlands fall victim to bad weather or disease.

The main debate is whether these eagles kill healthy viable lambs and, if so, how often?! Most newborn lambs, at around 5kg, push the upper limit of what these birds can carry. If there is an abundance of natural prey an eagle would much prefer to use less energy expenditure for an easier catch.

From global examples, nowhere does evidence suggest that eagles killing lambs through habitual predation. More likely, it is infrequent opportunism. Furthermore, even in areas with high conflict, like Scotland, lamb losses are trivial in commercial terms, and compared to other causes of loss. Eagles, like other birds of prey we share our skies with, have infinitesimal impacts on livestock farming.

Is there a precedent for eagle reintroduction elsewhere in the UK and what success have these other projects had?

Eagle reintroductions started in Britain in the 1970s, when white-tailed eagles were first restored to the Isle of Rum. Ever since, a rolling scheme of reintroductions have helped the white-tailed eagle become restored across east and west Scotland, South Killarney National Park in Ireland and more recently to the Isle of Wight in England. Wales is now the only country without white-tailed eagles.

Golden eagles were a bird that became extinct in Southern Britain, but a small population was founded in the North of Scotland and heavily protected, resulting in the natural expansion of golden eagles in Scotland as we know them today. Golden eagles have also been reintroduced to Donegal National Park in Ireland and more recently to southern Scotland in hope that they will disperse into Northern England. All Britain’s eagle reintroductions have been deemed a success and we strongly believe a Welsh reintroduction would be too.

What sites/regions have been targeted for eagle reintroduction initially?

We are still in the process of selecting the best eagle release sites in Wales for both the golden and white-tailed eagle. But we are not spoilt for choice! Wales holds significant amount of suitable eagle habitats. From our research we have found 45% of our Welsh coastlines are suitable for the return of white-tailed eagles and 41% of our uplands are suitable for the return of golden eagles.

The best white-tailed eagle areas in Wales include the Isle of Anglesey, Pembrokeshire National Park and the Snowdonia National Park Coastline from the Dyfi to Mawddach estuaries. While for golden eagles top areas include the central and lower mountains of Snowdonia National Park and the extensive wilderness of the Cambrian Mountains.

Are there any places in Wales where you can see eagles at all currently, and if so, why are they not breeding here?

Yes, we do get to see glimpses of both golden and white-tailed eagles in Wales – but this is very rare. If we do manage to get Welsh visitors, they are normally young eagles in exploratory flights from Ireland or Scotland. We have not seen an adult eagle in Wales for over 150 years! Adult eagles are long-lived and monogamous birds that don’t venture far from their established breeding territories. By contrast, young eagles wander widely in their immature years before they sexually mature at the age of four or five years.

Why are they not breeding in Wales?! Both eagle species’ breeding populations are too far north for them to naturally colonise Wales. This is why eagle reintroductions are so important: because of the biology of these birds. Young eagles exhibit strong bonds with their birthplace meaning that when they reach breeding age they will return to breed in close proximity to natal areas. Scientists call this ‘natal philopatry’. This behaviour slows population expansion and halts these species from naturally colonising their historic ranges in Britain.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel for Wales as by reintroducing young eagles to suitable release sites in Wales creates artificial birthplaces. So, these young birds will then be committed to ‘new’ areas leading to a breeding population in due course. 

What stage is the project at now? How soon are eagles likely to be actually reintroduced?

The ERW project launched its feasibility assessments in 2017. Over the last three years we have gathered crucial scientific evidence on whether a reintroduction of either or both species is an acceptable option for Wales. With 50% of our feasibility studies complete we can confirm that the Welsh landscape still has an abundance of available suitable habitat to sustain these birds. The ERW project will take a slow, considered approach while we complete our licence applications shaped around strict criteria as required by bodies including the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Wales. We are also now ready to launch the next crucial phase of the project, which includes risk assessments and public engagement.

The ERW project has been hit hard by the pandemic, which has slowed down our research and work. We do have a crowdfund open if anyone would like to support the project. There will be no eagles released anytime soon: not until our team feel ready and all authority figures are happy with all above criteria being met.   

What are the benefits of reintroducing golden and white-tailed eagles to Wales? 

As eagle reintroductions are not a novel concept in Britain, there is extensive knowledge of how these birds will bring wider environmental, conservation and economic benefits. In recent years the positive environmental impacts of eagles have become apparent through the principles of trophic cascades (e.g. predator-prey relationships), meso-predator release effects (i.e. balancing the food chain) and also as key indicator species of habitat health.

The return of eagles not only restores an important flagship species, but also ecosystem functions to our special places in Wales. There are two especially notable benefits. They clean up the environment by helping brake down organic material, accelerating nutrient cycling and the transfer of energy between trophic levels of the food chain. They also support additional crop fertilisation by transporting nutrients and organic materials between habitats which can occur thousands of kilometres away from original nutrient sources (e.g. ocean and forests). All this builds ecosystem resilience to our various habitats in Wales.

Eagles are also iconic, charismatic species and act as conservation champions to bring wider biodiversity and conservation benefits. Restoration of eagles to Wales will help raise the profile of habitat conservation, leading to knock on benefits for a much broader array of threatened or declining flora and fauna. Evidence suggests there will also be economic benefits. In Scotland eagle tourism is extremely popular. Recent RSPB research has shown, for example, that the presence of eagles generates up to £5 million to the economy of the Isle of Mull each year. So in Wales this can help regenerate and diversify rural and coastal economies.

Would the aim with the project be to return the eagle to the levels that the red kite has been restored to in Wales?

A lot of people think that our red kites have been restored to Wales. However, our Red kite populations are not linked to human intervention. Red kites have naturally colonised Wales and this population has been the main source population for subsequent reintroductions across Britain.

Red kites alongside our common buzzards are the most abundant birds of prey here in Wales. These birds are medium-sized, and in the middle of the food chain. With the removal of top-order species, like eagles, birds like the buzzard and red kite are not controlled by a higher-ranking species and can become overpopulated – especially if there is high abundance of prey available. These birds occupy every Welsh habitat type, including urban areas, and are thriving on lower trophic levels of the food chain including invertebrates, small mammals and carrion.

Do we think we will ever see the same numbers of eagles as red kites and buzzards in Wales? Not a chance! Species at the top of the food chain are limited by prey availability. When there is an abundance of prey, they will grow; when there is a shortage, they shrink. Eagles are also long-lived species, with long sexual maturation ages, high natural mortalities and slow population growth. They are self-regulating populations, so we will not expect to see them in the same numbers as red kites. The reintroduction process hopes to establish an estimated breeding population of seven to eight nests in Wales.

Do we get rather ‘worked up’ over bigger wildlife in Britain? Much of Europe has wolves and bears, for example, and just as much agriculture as we do. Does the British attitude to such wildlife need to change for your project to be successful?

In my experience, the great majority of our nation are anti-predator which is a shame as this attitude is historically stamped in the perceptions of the general public and rural landowners. In recent decades, though, there has been a positive shift in global attitudes towards our top-order species: attributed to the increasing knowledge of the wider benefits such species bring to an environment, such as sustaining diversity and improving ecosystem resilience.

Despite this shift in knowledge, there is still an imbalance in Britain’s suite of top-order species. Historically, humans have been the major cause of their population declines and extinctions of wolves, eagles, beavers and bears. The question of whether to eliminate predators is still one of the most divisive that we face in nature conservation today.

General attitudes towards wildlife are important: certainly for the success of eagles being restored to Wales. However, we do live in a small country with a myriad interests and cultural biases. The harsh reality of our stewardship of nature is an ever declining number of wild species. We need a common language that eradicates derogatory terms such as ‘vermin’, and ‘predators’ which degrades wildlife and has negative impacts on the perceptions of it. We also need civilised, informed dialogues with conflicting industries to build trust. Instead of debating polarised views we should instead be positive and inclusive, not accusatory. A good starting point is to realise we all want the same thing – a nature-rich country for future generations – and we must work together to overcome challenges like climate change, a growing human population and diminishing wildlife.  

To a wildlife-lover of wildlife, your job seems pretty special. Can you talk us through some of the best bits?

It is such a privilege to have a job which feeds into my passions. I live, breath and sleep birds of prey! Apart from all the paper work and management, I do get to spend a lot of time outdoors on research, which is the best part of my job: whether this is speaking to local groups, conducting biodiversity and habitat surveys or doing risk assessments for modern-day land uses. I spend most of my time in the Welsh outdoors and have had amazing encounters with hobby’s, short-eared owls, merlin’s, goshawk, honey buzzards and – my favourite – the hen harrier. Out of the pandemic, I also travel a lot and spend much time in places with golden and white-tailed eagles, such as Scotland and Norway: it is such an exhilarating experience that one that never gets old.

The most rewarding part of my job is to be able to work towards bringing these magnificent eagle experiences to Wales for the greater good to enjoy.

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