All right, eagles shouldn’ t be poisoned.
But . . .
Editor: Scottish Edition of The Times
Filed 02 Sep 07
This article was originally published
in The Times on 29th August 07.
It is reproduced here with the kind permission
of the author and of the newspaper.
The photograph of a Golden Eagle was not part of The Times original
It was kindly provided for Land-Care by PeterCairns/northshots.com
Flying with eagles may never take the place
of swimming with dolphins, but those breathtaking pictures of Sampson,
the golden eagle, soaring on a high thermal above the Devon cliffs
may just inspire an Icarus industry. Jonathan Marshall, in a motorised
glider, has trained the eagle to fly alongside him, and the two
of them regularly take to the skies together. Something about the
spread of that 7ft wing-span as Sampson prepared to dive reminded
me of the opening lines of the famous Battle of Britain poem by
John Magee, the Canadian Spitfire pilot:
“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds
of earth,/ and danced the sky on laughter-silvered wings.”
You can see why we cherish the eagle as
our favourite bird of prey. And you can understand why we mourn
them when they are killed. There are only about 420 breeding pairs
left in Britain, and, though the population in Scotland is stable,
there are none now in England; the last pair, in the Lake
District, have not been seen for some time.
Golden Eagle in Scotland
(Photo courtesy of Peter
One of the reasons for their decline is
persecution by humans. A less savoury photograph was issued the
other day, of a dead eagle poisoned on a Scottish estate. There
have been two such deaths in the past few weeks. It seems inconceivable
that anyone should deliberately try to kill such a majestic bird.
It is against nature, against morality, and decidedly against the
law. But it happens – and quite frequently too.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the police and
conservation bodies have declared war against the bird-poisoners.
There have been several high-profile raids on farmers and gamekeepers.
So far there have been no significant charges brought, but the campaign
to catch the perpetrators goes on. It involves a National Wildlife
Crime Unit, a sophisticated surveillance and intelligence operation,
and a network of agencies that regard their mission as akin to tackling
the illegal drug industry. Results in terms of prosecutions are
negligible. The cost to the taxpayer is soaring.
Instead of this endless and increasingly
bitter war of attrition, however, it might be better to stand back
and consider why the poisoning happens in the first place; then
to suggest a more constructive approach to combating it. No one
condones the deliberate poisoning of a protected species, but these
incidents have to be placed in the context of some other statistics,
notably the massive escalation in the number of raptors –
birds of prey – that has taken place in Britain over the past
Eagles may be stable, but the population
of other species, such as buzzards, ravens and sparrowhawks, has
grown spectacularly, and over a very short period. A generation
ago the buzzard was an endangered species in Britain. Today it is
one of the most familiar sights in the countryside. In some areas,
such as the South East of England, buzzards have multiplied by 400
per cent, and, with more than 120,000 adults around, it has overtaken
the kestrel as Britain’s most common bird of prey.
The buzzard feeds on carrion, small birds
and rodents, but it is also a committed harrier of young partridges
and pheasants, which are bred for shooting, hence its unpopularity
with gamekeepers. They claim that it not only attacks their breeding
stock, but is also a serial killer of many other birds on the decline,
such as waders and songbirds. They believe that the time has come
for raptor numbers to be controlled in those areas where they have
got the upper hand, and they point to the salutary experience of
Langholm Moor, in the Scottish Borders, where the population of
another bird of prey, the hen harrier, was allowed to explode, resulting
in the almost complete annihilation of most other birds, including
grouse, curlew and lapwing. Today the moor is devoid of most bird
life – including the hen harriers themselves, which were left
with nothing to feed on.
The case for controlling or relocating these
raptors may seem persuasive, but it has got nowhere. Far from accepting
that they even represent a problem, the line from the Royal Society
for the Protection of Birds, as well as government agencies such
as English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage, is that we need
more of them, not fewer. Across Britain, they are intent on introducing
other species, such as red kites and sea eagles, whose populations
they would like to restore to levels not seen for more than 100
years. They have been extremely successful, with 33 pairs of sea
eagles, and more than 1,000 pairs of red kites thriving. The argument
is that these magnificent birds pose little threat to other species,
and that people love seeing them hovering above them in the sky.
To some country lovers, this amounts to
a fixed and narrow-minded devotion to a single category, rather
than an even-handed approach to all bird life. “Why do they
only like the cruel birds?” wrote one woman in the Scottish
lowlands to her local newspaper. She had seen her garden cleared
of songbirds by the local sparrowhawk. When I asked one RSPB representative
why he thought that larks and meadow-pipits might be less important
than a nearby hen harrier, he described them as “a larder
species” – a food supply for a superior bird rather
than a species in its own right. There is a case to say that this
amounts to ornithological racism.
The poisoning of any wild bird, protected
or not, is a crime against nature. The killing of an eagle is an
outrage. Whatever form it takes, it must be stopped. The most effective
way of doing so, however, is not to criminalise those who live and
work in the country, but to engage them in the campaign. And the
best way of beginning that process is to indicate a willingness
A first step would be to recognise that
an increase in the raptor population in some areas may present a
serious problem; that it can threaten other species of wild birds
as well as those that are bred for sport; and that there may, in
some areas, be a case for controlling their numbers. After all,
if sea eagles and red kites can be relocated from one country to
another, then surely buzzards and sparrowhawks can be moved along
too. It would be known as the quota system. Now, haven’t we
heard that somewhere else?