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A pair of white tailed eagles perched on the water's edge © Ainsley Bennett Photography

Three years ago Forestry England and the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation released six white-tailed eagles on the Isle of Wight after an absence of over 240 years.

This was the start of a project which aims to return these lost birds to the English landscape by releasing up to 60 birds over five years.

Steve Egerton-Read, Forestry England white-tailed eagle project officer, tells us all about this landmark conservation project.

White-tailed eagles are Britain’s largest birds of prey and were once widespread across England. Persecution by humans wiped out the entire population by 1780.

Now an exciting reintroduction project is returning these iconic birds to the country.

White tailed eagles in the skies copyright Paul Jackson
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Based on the Isle of Wight, the project, led by the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation and Forestry England, began releasing young white-tailed eagles into the wild in 2019.

It plans to release up to 60 eagles by 2024 and hopes to establish 6-8 breeding pairs along the south coast of England.

The Isle of Wight – and beyond

The Isle of Wight’s central position on the south coast is an ideal habitat for these coastal loving birds.

It has good foraging areas for fish and other food in the Solent and surrounding estuaries.

From here the birds can spread east and west along the coast and, in time, link up with existing populations of white-tailed eagles living in Ireland, Scotland, and mainland Europe.

The project could give a significant boost to the Island economy. The presence of white-tailed eagles on the Isle of Mull is known to have boosted its local economy.

A comparative image of a white tailed eagle in flight © Andy Bloomfield

Tracking

Each bird is fitted with a satellite tracker to enable the team to monitor and track their progress in real time. This data and observations from the field are helping the project team to understand how the birds are learning to live successfully in southern England.

White tailed eagle in a tree © Brian Fairbrother

Once released, the birds explore widely for their first few years making journeys across Britain as they build up their knowledge of the landscape.

They travel to all corners of the UK with many people lucky enough to see them over their local area. Some have gone even further, crossing the English Channel to spend time in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

However far the birds explore, the tracking data clearly shows that the birds consistently return to the south coast as they see this area as their natal home.

White tailed eagle copyright Brian Fairbrother

Monitoring

The project closely monitors the released eagles to help understand how they are fitting into the landscape. One of the key areas looked at is what they eat.

In order to understand this, the team watch the birds in the field for many hours, to date they have collated more than 300 observations of white-tailed eagles feeding. Within these observations, the team have recorded over 61 different species of prey eaten by white-tailed eagles.

White tailed eagle carrying captured prey © Ainsley Bennett Photography

Fish is the preferred prey item when available, and on the south coast is available year-round. White-tailed eagles also eat other birds, with gulls and geese featuring most regularly.

Younger individuals spend greater amounts of time inland, often close to areas that have an abundance of rabbits or hares, though these feature less regularly in older birds diet as they head towards the wetland habitats looking for breeding territories.

© Pete Box white tailed eagle catching a fish

If you are lucky enough to encounter an eagle, or any other wildlife, please give the animal plenty of space and avoid scaring it from its position which can cause the birds to expend vital energy and interrupt their ability to feed.

Thanks to Steve Egerton-Read for this introduction to the exciting white-tailed eagle project. You can follow the eagles’ progress on Twitter and Instagram: @SeaEagleEngland.