UK’s largest bird of prey, sea eagles, have thrived in the country since their reintroduction from extinction and are proving to be generating a high tourism bonus. Little larger than the golden eagle, it is mottled brown in colour with a pale head and pale patches on the wings and distinguished by its hooked beak and white tail.
A bird of the wilderness it inhabits huge territories where it can nest undisturbed. As predators, they are meat eaters though they will take carrion as well as go hunting for themselves. Nesting in remote areas they prefer tall trees or cliffs and remain in one territory bringing up their young ones in the successive years.
Like many other birds of prey, they have suffered from widespread persecution by humans. Though their habitat loss was not a factor in their decline, the birds were hunted by gamekeepers and shepherds to protect their fisheries and livestock and were also prized as trophies. As a result, sea eagles experienced a decrease in numbers throughout their range during the nineteenth century.
From 1975, a number of the species were imported from Norway over a period of ten years and released into the wild on the island of Rhum. It wasn’t until the end of this period that the first pair bred successfully and since then they are released into the wild in Scotland, both in Wester Ross and most recently in Fife, where 15 birds were released in June 2009.
The release programme has been a success in the re-establishment of the birds in Scotland and currently there are around 200 individual birds, with much expected to increase. An additional advantage and a plus side, the birds are bringing economic benefit to the economy in the west of Scotland and the estimates show that around 6,000 people visit the island of Mull annually to see the eagles, generating around £2million for the local economy.
Provided with the highest possible protection status for the sea eagles under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, making it an offence not just to kill or injure or damage their nests, but also to disturb them, they have become very popular and a tourist amusement. There are guided tours that run from 21 March-mid July with essential booking at a cost of £4 per adult. Elsewhere in Scotland, there are several good sites for spotting the birds, all in the west of the country. These include:
- The Isle of Skye, close to Portree and Kylerhea
- Argyll, most notably Crinan, Loch Awe and Ardcastle
- The island of Raasay, off Skye