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Return of the 'flying door'

White tailed sea eagle
By Paul Kelly
29 March 2023

An extraordinary event is likely to happen on the south coast of England this summer or possibly next, that has not occurred for over 250 years. When it does, it will leave many feeling elated, a smaller number very cross and will certainly represent the culmination of the lifetimes’ work of a very remarkable man.

When and if it happens, it will probably do so under very tight security and a news blackout, so that the first most of us will get to hear about it will be some time after it has happened.

I am referring, of course, to the first breeding attempt of a pair of White-Tailed Sea Eagles on the English mainland since the American War of Independence.

Now, I grant that for many people this may not sound like very much to get excited about, what with the world in existential crisis, but they might be surprised by the level of reaction this event is likely to generate.

For a start, the White-Tailed Sea Eagle is no ordinary bird. An adult female may have a wingspan of eight feet which means, should you see one in the air, the impression you may get is of a flying door. They are, in every respect, a very impressive creature as befits the largest bird of prey in the UK.  As a result, they can create a significant emotional reaction for many people. Indeed, those with an interest in the natural world will often travel huge distances and pay a lot of money into the local economy for the chance to see one. But these eagles also have a debatable reputation, amongst those less fond of them, for being efficient killers of livestock and gamebirds.

That these magnificent raptors even have a chance of breeding on or near the south coast is largely down to the lifelong vision and tenacity of Roy Dennis MBE.

To his supporters Roy Dennis is a huge conservation hero who has arguably done more in his lifetime for biodiversity in the UK than almost anyone else.  He has achieved this by being the driving force behind the successful reintroduction to the UK of many native species that have either gone extinct or been driven out of their natural homelands by human persecution. These include such iconic creatures as the Beaver, the Red Kite, the Osprey (to England) and of course the White-Tailed Sea Eagle (to Scotland) and the Golden Eagle (to Ireland).

However, to his detractors he is little short of an interfering menace who is trying to re-engineer a natural order that has no place in the countryside of the twenty-first century. These people may be fewer in number, but they tend to make up for it with political influence and are very capable of protecting their own interests. Some of them are even prepared to take the law into their own hands and carry out, or turn a blind eye to, the illegal killing birds of prey including the reintroduced sea eagles. They employ various methods including poisons, guns and traps. However, even when they are discovered doing it, the local police are either not interested or are insufficiently resourced to mount a meaningful investigation – let alone a prosecution.

The Roy Dennis Foundation has released about 20 Sea Eagles on the Isle of Wight since 2019 with the aim of establishing a sustainable breeding population of 6 to 8 pairs. To achieve this, they are licensed to release about another 40 young birds, mostly taken from nests in the Western Isles where the birds were successfully reintroduced in the 1980s. Of these initial birds at least three have already been lost to persecution, including two last year alone. Indeed, one was found on a Dorset estate very close to where I live.

To someone who has taken a lively interest in these subjects for most of my life, I believe that the main casualty of the intense exchange that will occur once the birds breed will be rational debate. Both sides will make extravagant accusations and counter claims about the environmental and economic impact that a growing population of Sea Eagles is likely to have. Indeed, the issue has already attracted the attention of a local MP. They have felt confident enough to come out against the reintroduction, claiming that the eagles will have an impact on livestock farming. They have gone on to say that the resources involved with their protection would be better spent targeting county lines drug gangs. Not a conflation I have come across before.

As with all these things the MP in question may have a point, but if there is an outbreak of common sense which enables farmers to be properly compensated for proven cases of livestock predation, I confess to being with Mister Dennis on this one. I have seen firsthand the exhilarating impact on children from a local school, where my wife teaches, after the group witnessed one of the reintroduced sea eagles gliding nonchalantly along Poole Harbour. If this reintroduction helps to connect them to the natural world in an even a small way, then it must be a good thing.