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Tuesday, 18 October 2011 15:30

Golden Eagle Project 10 year overview

The European population of the Golden Eagle, Aquila chrysaetos, has a widespread but discontinuous distribution across much of Europe. The European breeding population is small, and it is estimated to be as few as 8,400 pairs. Its range has been drastically reduced over the past century as a result of persecution and loss of breeding habitat. Breeding areas are now restricted to remote mountain areas in Sweden, Finland, Scotland and parts of southern Europe. Golden Eagles once bred on the north-west coast of the Republic of Ireland in County Donegal, where the landscape essentially consists of uplands and mountains dominated by blanket bogs. In its heyday, Donegal held up to 12 Golden Eagle home ranges.

Irish Golden Eagle Project Summary 2001-2011

In 2001, wild Golden Eagle chicks taken from Scottish nests, under a licence from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), were reintroduced into Glenveagh National Park, County Donegal, Republic of Ireland. The reintroduction project is managed by the Golden Eagle Trust (GET) in partnership with the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). The project was primarily funded by EU LIFE Nature funding from 2001-2006 and by NPWS from 2006 to the present. The Irish Golden Eagle Project Steering Group relies upon the goodwill of the Scottish fieldworkers and the support of the Scottish authorities for the provision of donor stock. Initially SNH issued a collection licence for up to 75 young birds, with a limit of 15 chicks a year. Under the SNH licence, a single chick can only be taken from eyries with two chicks. Chicks are taken at when approx. 6 weeks old when they can thermo regulate and feed themselves from food placed on the nest. At the beginning of the project we over-estimated the number of two-chick broods available in Scotland. For this reason the collection of donor stock has taken longer than initially anticipated.

Fig 1. 63 Golden Eagle chicks collected from Scotland (2001-2011).

Table 1 : Annual number of Donor stock collected
2001 6 Birds (Golden Eagle chicks)
2002 8
2003 12
2004 10
2005 7 Sub total 43 birds over first 5 years (8.6 birds a year average)
2006 4 (Licensing restrictions introduced to protect Scottish Eagles)
2007 4
2008 5
2009 0
2010 5
2011 2 Sub-total of 20 birds over next 6 years (3.3 birds a year average)
63 Birds collected in Total

60 Birds were released in Glenveagh National Park. Two birds collected in weak condition have been placed in long term captivity – one in Forar, Scotland and one in Donegal. A third bird collected from the Uists, died in captivity - as did several other well feathered chicks in the Uists that season. The exact cause of death for these Uists chicks was never established.

The wild Golden Eagle chicks were placed in avian release cages in an isolated part of Glenveagh National Park in Donegal County. Following the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001, and the associated restrictions, the project subsequently received a constant flow of chicks from Scotland. However, following growing concern regarding the status of some of the Scottish Golden Eagle sub-populations, SNH licence restrictions were imposed from 2006 onwards. International reintroduction best practice guidelines (see IUCN guidelines - ) stipulate that the removal of donor stock for a new founder population should never threaten the status of a donor population.

In order to maximise the survival rate of the released immature Golden Eagles food dumps were established in Glenveagh National Park. These food dumps were used by the birds immediately after release; but the birds were also seen feeding independently shortly after release. The food dumps helped boost first year survival rates and delay dispersal patterns.

The following groups and individuals have supported the project and located eligible donor stock; Scottish Raptor Study Groups, Highland Foundation for Wildlife, Haworth Conservation, Forestry Commission, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Natural Research, The National Trust for Scotland, Davey Aiton, Dave Anderson, Stuart Benn, Jon Brain, Keith Brockie, Jamie Boyle, Duncan Cameron, Martin Carty, Ken Crane, Russell Cooper, Colin Crooke, Roy Dennis, Andy Douse, Des Duggan, Brian Etheridge, Alan Fielding, Arthur French, Ronnie Graham, Justin Grant, Derek Hayward, Roger Hayward*, Paul Haworth, Hugh Insley, David Jardine, Glyn Jones, Ron Lawie, Kevin Lawlor, Peter Madden, Mike Madders*, Doug Mainland, Wendy Mattingley, Liz McDonald, Mike McGrady, Enda McLoughlin, Bob McMillan, Ian McPherson, Kate Nellist, Mike Nicholl, Duncan Orr-Ewing, Abbie Patterson, Dave Pierce, John Ralston, John Rhead, Robin Reid, Gordon Riddle, Ben Ross, David Sexton, Ken Slater, John Smith, Derek Spencer, Patrick Stirling-Aird, Andy Summers, Bob Swann, Des Thompson, Jeff Watson*, Ewan Weston and Phil Whitfield.

*These individuals sadly passed away during the course of the project.

The Golden Eagle Trust is also grateful to the landowners, gamekeepers, farmers and deer stalkers who facilitated the collection of birds from private estates in Scotland.

Survival Rates

Figure 2 – Minimum First year survival rates (%) of released Golden eagles in Ireland. The above graph includes the 3 wild bred young reared in Ireland 2007-2009.

The survival rates shown in Fig. 2 are based on radio tracking and a small number of re-sightings of individual birds with complete wing tag identification by the general public. As the project progressed and as earlier favoured haunts became occupied by territorial pairs the newly released birds began to disperse more widely. For example, a pair was established near the Glenveagh National Park release site before the 2006 cohort were released. As a result it has become more difficult to accurately assess the annual survival rates of each cohort. So the above graph is just a minimum figure and is based on some very small sample sizes from later cohorts.

Of the 60 released Golden Eagles (2001-2011)

– 4 were recovered dead and post mortems have shown natural causes of death.

– 1 bird was confirmed poisoned in Donegal (2009)

– 1 bird was confirmed poisoned in Tyrone, Northern Ireland (2010)

– We believe one golden eagle was shot in County Mayo, Republic of Ireland.

– The Golden Eagle Trust, Northern Ireland Raptor Study Group (NIRSG) and RSPB have passed on intelligence to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) regarding the probable persecution of 4 other Golden Eagles in Northern Ireland (2 poisoned in Antrim 2009 and 2010 – information via NI's Forest Service staff, 1 poisoned in Fermanagh 2010 – information via NIRSG and 1 bird shot in Antrim 2009 – information via RSPB)

[1 Irish fledged young was poisoned in Sligo, Rep of Ireland 2010.]

In summary, of the 60 released birds we have approx 25 alive in Donegal at present. 4 released birds have died from natural causes. 2 released birds have been confirmed poisoned. 5 other released birds have probably died as a result of persecution. This would suggest 11 of the released birds have died, 25 of the released birds are still alive and 24 of the released birds are currently unaccounted for.


We had a female with two yellow wings tags turn up and establish a territory and build a nest in North Donegal this year. This bird was released in 2001 and had not been seen since 2003. We do not know where this individual was for the last 8 years.

We have received 4 records from Scotland of wing tagged Golden Eagles, each with different colour wing tags, which were clearly released in Glenveagh National Park. Gamekeepers reported individuals from Birste Estate and Balmoral Estate and the public reported birds from Rannoch Moor and the Isle of Mull. Unfortunately, none of the Scottish sightings have recorded complete individual wing tag details, which underline the difficulty in getting close up observations of Golden Eagles in general.

Like most bird of prey reintroduction programmes, the key question is where are the missing or ‘unaccounted for' birds? If one assumed the very unlikely scenario that every one of these ‘missing' birds was persecuted, this would suggest 31 (2 confirmed poisonings, 5 probable persecution cases and 24 ‘missing' birds) of the 60 released birds have been persecuted, i.e. just over 50%. Or approx 3 birds a year lost to illegal activity.

The GET does not accept this viewpoint, as it would rule out any other birds dying from natural causes. It would also suggest that some of the released Golden Eagles visiting Scotland and Northern Ireland were persecuted in the UK. This hypothesis would also exclude the sub-adult birds that are wandering across the mountains elsewhere in the Republic of Ireland, which have not been identified individually. Nonetheless, it is suffice to say that bird of prey persecution is a real threat to all raptors across Ireland and Britain and it has clearly limited the survival rates of the Golden Eagles released in Donegal. The long distance and Omni-directional dispersal of several raptor species, prone to poisoning, is why co-operation between the respective Statutory Conservation Authorities, across Ireland and Britain, is so essential in tackling wildlife crime.


1 pair, of four year old eagles collected in Scotland in 2001, nested and laid an egg in Donegal in 2005. Two pairs laid eggs in 2006. And finally in 2007 a pair of Golden Eagles produced Ireland's first wild bred Golden Eagle chick in almost a 100 years, in Glenveagh National Park.

Two chicks fledged in 2009 (from 1 pair), three chicks fledged in 2010 (from 2 pairs) and two chicks fledged in 2011 (from 2 pairs). In total 8 wild young have fledged in Donegal during 2007-2011, as a result of the release of Scottish donor stock.

In 2011, there were 8 Golden Eagle territories in Donegal, including 2 breeding pairs, 3 territorial pairs and 3 territories occupied by single birds.

The 2011 Golden Eagle Collection from Scotland

Two Golden Eagle chicks were collected from Scotland in 2011. On Sunday 13th June 2011, one bird was collected North west Mull. The second chick was collected from South east side of Loch Tay, Perthshire on Friday 8th July.

In light of this year's shortage of qualifying donor stock, the Golden Eagle Trust would like to collect very young Golden Eagle chicks from nests that never fledge two young. We are quite anxious that we do not release any imprinted Golden Eagles into the wild in Ireland. We are currently examining the possibility of rearing 7-14 day old chicks, before exporting them to Ireland, using fostering techniques with captive female Golden Eagles in Scotland.

Irish Poisoning Legislation

All bird of prey poisoning incidents in the Republic of Ireland have been illegal since the Golden Eagle project started in 2001. However, additional legislation was enacted by the Irish Government in October 2010, which tightened previous restrictions and all outdoor poisoning is totally illegal in the Republic of Ireland and increased fines and penalties have been enacted.

The Department of Agriculture also stated publicly that anyone found poisoning non rodents would be in breach of the Cross Compliance measures of their Single Farm Payment. The European Commission had made inquiries regarding the enforcement of poisoning legislation in Ireland following a complaint by the Golden Eagle Trust (GET) in November 2009.

A post mortem protocol, between the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), the Regional Veterinary Laboratories of the Department of Agriculture and the State Laboratory, has been signed and established. Formal discussions have also taken place, between the Department of Agriculture in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and the NPWS, concerning the possibility of sharing resources and costs as regards toxicology testing.

Following an internal Departmental organisational review, and queries by the European Commission, NPWS have established a review group to examine their enforcement of the Irish Wildlife Acts and their associated wildlife crime database.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service has almost 80 Conservation Rangers. Their primary responsibility is to enforce the European Habitat and Birds Directives and Irish Wildlife Legislation. They have the power of arrest, in certain circumstances, and they are enforcing Ireland's Wildlife Legislation.

To date in 2011, only one of the birds from the three reintroduction programmes, a Red Kite in Wicklow, has been confirmed poisoned in the Republic of Ireland. Three Buzzards and one Peregrine have also been confirmed poisoned in 2011. We concede that illegal poisoning will continue in Ireland – but it appears that we have made significant progress over the last twelve months and more focussed enforcement strategies are being established.

Overview of Irish Raptor Conservation

The Irish Golden Eagle Reintroduction Project is part of a much wider national raptor conservation effort in Ireland. Ireland had one of the lowest range of raptor species and some of the smallest raptor populations of any European country, when the project started in 2001. The paucity of raptors resulted in lower public awareness, fewer specific raptor policies and less raptor fieldwork coverage than other European countries at that time.

Therefore, it is worth noting that the Irish Golden Eagle project, since 2001, has been a catalyst and part of a much wider raptor conservation effort in Ireland, beyond the Golden Eagle project itself. These improvements in Irish raptor conservation include;

• 100 White-tailed Eagles, collected from Norway, have been reared and released in a GET/NPWS project in County Kerry, SW Ireland, between 2007 and 2011. 4 territories are now established.

• 159 Red Kites, collected from Wales, have been released in a GET/NPWS project on the east coast of the Republic of Ireland, between 2007 and 2011. 120 birds were released in County Wicklow, where 17 young fledged in 2011. 39 Red Kites were released in North County Dublin in 2011.

• In addition, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds released 80 Red Kites in County Down, on the east coast of Northern Ireland, between 2008 and 2010. The Dublin kite release site is half way between the kite populations in Wicklow and Down.

• The Irish White-tailed Eagle survival rates are slightly higher than the current Scottish White-tailed Eagle project survival rates. The survival rate of the Irish Red Kite population is higher than the Black Isle and Central Scotland kite projects. An independent SNH review of the Irish Golden Eagle project, in 2009, found the survival rates of released Irish birds was comparable to wild Golden Eagle survival rates in Scotland.

• In recent years, three individuals have completed their PhDs, on Peregrine, Barn Owl and Hen Harrier ecology, respectively, adding to Ireland's scientific raptor skill set.

• Birdwatch Ireland now has a full time Raptor Conservation Officer.

• The three release projects have a high profile in Ireland and are used to highlight their respective counties as tourism destinations. As a consequence they have the requisite local and national political support because of their undoubted economic value to Ireland.

• The raptor release programmes have solid political support. The Minister for the Department of Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan T.D. (responsible for NPWS and nature conservation) released the Red Kites in County Dublin and the White-tailed Eagles in Kerry in July and August 2011.

• In October 2010, Ireland's national TV station, RTE, aired a four part series on the Irish reintroduction programmes. One half hour episode dealt entirely with illegal bird of prey poisoning in the Republic of Ireland.

By Lorcán O Toole, October 2011

Last modified on Friday, 09 March 2012 17:33