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All right, eagles shouldn’ t be poisoned.
But . . .

Magnus Linklater

Editor: Scottish Edition of The Times

Filed 02 Sep 07
©Magnus Linklater

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 article.
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 Cairns/northshots.com)

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 20 years.

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 to compromise.

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?

©Magnus Linklater