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Tue4th Mar 2014

An opportunity to celebrate ‘Irishness’ and the environment in which it grew.

Exploring & Celebrating people’s interaction with the Irish Landscape over the last 10,000 years?



The year 2016 will be marked in some manner, as a notable milestone in this nation’s development.    We can presume that public monies will be used on activities, projects and events to mark the occasion, regardless of the broad spectrum of opinion regarding 1916.  This is a political reality.

The Government has already established a planning committee examining what should be done in 2016.  The perceived wisdom, amongst media commentators, is that the Government is anxious to avoid any overt political or nationalistic overtones that could spark any public disorder and damage the fragile peace process.

So this discussion paper, suggests one concept that could be discussed and explored before developing it, if it was deemed a worthwhile exercise.

The Concept

What might we celebrate in 2016? The Arts, Sporting, Cultural, Educational, Business and Community sectors will all have their own proposals.  But the Golden Eagle Trust propose the concept that we could celebrate how people on this unique island or landmass have developed a rich cultural heritage in close association with its environment and natural heritage, over the last 10,000 years, since humans first arrived on these shores.

We could explore, highlight and celebrate the hidden influences of our countryside on a wide array of cultural life.  These subtle influences, such as the climate, our coastal or island status, the type of food we grew or caught, our seasonal patterns, the woods, mountains, rivers and bogs all shaped our unique identity and lifestyles.

One can deliberately emphasis and celebrate the wide variety of influences that came to Ireland through waves of early and later peoples or through trading contacts across Europe and even as far afield as the Middle East, since the Bronze Age.

The influence of nature and the environment on our society, and equally the influence of society on our landscape, is sometimes hidden in Archaeological research or historical records.  These include Celtic, Norman, Viking, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Gaelic and Ulster-Scots documents or oral traditions.  We could aim to add to our growing understanding of our rich (if slightly overlooked) cultural connection with our landscape.  This concept will not gain public or political support if it is focussed on the landscape itself.  Therefore it needs to be rooted in people and our evolving society.

We need to present this concept as an open invitation to all cultural and community groups to explore how their origins evolved in tandem with the landscape in which they were based.  We need to encourage other groups, to re-examine their ancient relationship with the landscape.  If our national population were magically removed and lived in France, New York or Turkey our shared culture would be quite ‘different’.  So we need to celebrate this small landmass in the North Atlantic and explore its influence, over Millennia, on our current cultural identity.

Why Bother?

Wildlife people are primarily engaged in improving our landscape through management, policy, education, planning, legislation and awareness.  But we often encounter pre-conceived negative attitudes, amongst key decision makers and the public, toward the environment.  So we recognise the difficulties in overcoming these attitudes amongst society and sectorial representatives.

If we try to develop this concept, beyond this deliberately vague initial outline, we will face at least two immediate queries;

1)       How relevant is this proposal to the respective goals of wildlife groups?

2)      How can we make this proposal relevant to Irish Society in general?

1)  Our shared goals are focussed on the current status of the environment and wildlife in Ireland.  We are aiming to improve the status or condition of our relevant targets.  But most of our goals are trying to restore or improve a landscape that has been shaped by previous human generations – sometimes in the distant past.  We cannot achieve our goals, normally, without public support and therefore we need to examine and understand this history before plotting an agreed future.

Many of us may not have the time, or see the immediate practical relevance, of exploring these issues.  But if students, academics, volunteers or community groups start to look at their environment with increased awareness we can all benefit from the increasing environmental and nature ‘lore’ or wisdom and bring it to a wider public audience.  We can either lead projects or assists others with same.  This has significant public and political awareness potential, which will in turn help our respective current management priorities.

2)  Community Groups, in particular, can become part of this landscape celebration.  Placenames, old maps and oral traditions can be brought to the fore and placed alongside several seminal books on the cultural traditions based around the environment and the academic works on the early Irish environmental laws (Brehon Laws) as outlined by Professor Fergus Kelly.  This can be used to enhance the pride and sense of place amongst local communities.  This need not be limited to rural communities. 

For example, the people of Clondalkin, West Dublin, could be encouraged to establish a small local native meadow to reflect the prefix in their local placename, ‘Clon’, which was translated from ‘‘Cluain’, which is Irish for meadow.  Basically, if we are imaginative, we can unleash a wide variety of small projects to celebrate or improve our landscape, if we can connect it to our human or cultural footprints.  This could have environmental, cultural and social benefits.


This brief outline, gives a flavour of a much more elaborate plan we could develop, in the autumn.  These ideas need not be the sole aspect or the leading aspect of the 2016 events.  But equally, could we suggest that we be as bold and as imaginative as possible.

The Gaelic revival in the late 19th century sparked renewed interest in the Irish language, Gaelic games and Irish Literature and theatre.  The rather unexpected Riverdance performance in the Eurovision song contest renewed interest in traditional dancing.  At some stage, we need a “step-change” in public attitudes to the Irish environment, landscape and nature.

In the current economic climate, the public and politicians will be looking for “added value” in any celebrations funded by the State.  A mere 14 years after the event, how many of the National Millennium Committee projects have had a lasting residue?

  • Could we establish an ancient farm and farm practices, from various periods, and manage an interesting array of wildlife in these habitats. 
  • Could we establish a national ancient wetland site with wet woodlands, bogs and reed beds? 

·         Could we replant trees in areas with pertinent wooded placenames? -see www.logainm.ie

  • Could we see a Brehon Law visitor centre outlining the rules of one of Europe’s most ancient environmental law tracts? 
  • Could we establish an Irish Placename Visitor Centre?  Just as our Diaspora have a keen interest in family genealogy, an Irish Placename Visitor  Centre could explain the meanings of townland names, so many of which are connected to habitats, animals, birds and trees.  Apart from family names, our Diaspora has the name of their original home/farm’s townland name etched in their family lore.

The idea of celebrating the influence of nature on Irish culture can be of real benefit to the Tourism and Agri-Food sector.  Both place so much of their foreign marketing and promotions on the Green image of Ireland.  The idea of celebrating the interaction of humans and the environment can also create local and social benefits and be elastic enough to accommodate a wide array of Irish society. 

Presumably, in 2016, we will celebrate this Nation or Country, in some manner.  A Country made up of dozens of separate groups of peoples who arrived here across the sea, since before the Iron Age.  These people shaped the environment and wildlife, where they settled and lived.  But crucially, these people and their culture were equally shaped or influenced by the same environment and wildlife of their new home.  

So this is a real opportunity to celebrate ‘Irishness’ and the environment in which it grew.

2016 Celebrations
Tue26th Nov 2013

Report on the investigation of possible crane habitats in Ireland.

Sigvard Lundgren & Björn-Åke Andersson

(Swedish Crane Working Group)

The Golden Eagle Trust of Ireland invited members of the Swedish Crane Working Group (SCWG) to visit Ireland in 2011 to look at the potential for a Crane release programme. The visit took place on July 27-31. The first days were designated to Bord na Mona owned bogs, in different stages of harvesting and also to some locations where peat bog restoration was undertaken.

During the last days we visited several areas in the Counties Roscommon, Longford, Leitrim and Cavan. 

Our field experience of cranes mainly has it origin in an area in southwest Sweden, where the breeding density of cranes is high to Swedish standards, and where we have conducted studies on cranes for roughly 20 years.

Crane breeding habitat requirements

Cranes need a suitable nesting place and feeding territory to be able to successfully breed and raise young.

The nest, which is made of vegetative material, is placed where it is surrounded by water to make it more inaccessible for mammal predators, mainly foxes and badgers. If water level gets lower during incubation the breeding often fails. Cranes have some ability to defend the nest against predators, but dry and warm weather during incubation leads to many failed breeding attempts. Cranes may breed relatively close to human settlements, but this seems to be due to differences in individual crane behaviour. Even so, cranes are often extremely secretive when incubating. A relatively undisturbed habitat is essential, however to what extent depends upon the individual pair.

The feeding habitat must be able to support the newly hatched chicks with accurate food items close to the nest for the first days in life. The adults can serve the chicks food items, but as the chicks are small they cannot move far from the nest, i.e. food must be found near the nest. As the chicks grow the family may move further away from the nest, and when 5-6 weeks old (at the size of a heron) they can be found 1-2 km from the nest. The family normally returns to the nest in the evening and spend the night there, provided that it still is a safe place. If food availability is scarce where the family is, one of the adults can leave the rest to feed on a better place. The other adult stays with the young.

During growth crane chicks need protein. Cranes are quite opportunistic in the choice of food. Many kinds of invertebrates constitute the majority of food items, but when available also frogs and rodents are taken. In July, when the young cranes usually are more than 6 weeks old, berries, not the least blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus), are important. However, the single most important food is probably earthworms (Lumbricidae), which can be found when rainfall has made it possible to find them on the soil surface.

Crane families searching for food can be observed in cultivated areas, especially when grass has been cut for ensilage or hay. In heavily fertilized fields the vegetation seems to be too dense and food items are more difficult to detect.

When the young are able to fly at 9-10 weeks of age, they still often stay in their territory if food requirements are good until migration starts. Other families may join other cranes in autumn groups that are visiting suitable feeding locations, such as harvested cereal fields.

Bord na Mona bogs as breeding habitat

Peatbogs are not common as breeding places in Sweden, although it often was stated so in literature. The edges of the bogs however, with a wet fen, can provide a suitable nesting place. The shore of a small, slowly running, stream, or of a lake, often quite small, are preferred nesting habitats. The nest should be concealed within vegetation, and is rarely easy to detect. During our visit to Ireland we could recognize many places that fulfil these requirements. The restoration of cutaway Bord na Mona bogs should provide good possibilities to create suitable nesting sites. In Sweden several crane pairs have readily accepted newly constructed ponds on farmland as nesting sites, which show the great adaptability in cranes to respond to and take advantage of man-made habitats.

Food availability in the Irish habitats we visited is difficult to assess. At some Bord na Mona locations (i.e. Ballycon, County Offaly) we had the impression of food scarcity because there were very few birds, even if the time of year was taken into account. At the restored bogs at Boora/Blackwater (County Offaly) the vegetation at several places looked too dense to serve as good feeding areas.


The possibility to create habitats suitable for cranes and other bird species, when restoring peat bogs, provides good conditions for establishing a breeding crane population. We suggest computer simulationsto produce images of how the wetlands will look after the restoration. Then it may be possible to identify possible improvements or changes to the models. Areas in question are large enough to hold several breeding pairs, which is important as cranes normally find their future territories not far from their natal area. And because of this we suggest thatcranes should preferably not be released in an area that often gets flooded.

When the first phase of reintroduction is over there seem to be many areas in the counties visited that should be suitable for cranes. The possibilities of the crane once again becoming a breeding bird in Ireland looks promising.

Eurasian Crane
Thu25th Jul 2013

Two White-tailed Eagles have successfully fledged in Ireland for the first time in over 110 years. In the last week the two birds were seen away from the nest and yesterday both chicks were seen flying near the nest on Lough Derg, near Mountshannon, Co Clare. This pair also created history in 2012 when they nested for the first time.   It is another significant milestone in the long arduous effort of restoring these magnificent birds to Ireland’s wetlands and coastline.

These are the first Irish born chicks of the high profile reintroduction programme, which began in 2007 with the release of young Norwegian eagles in Killarney National Park.  The White-tailed Eagle reintroduction programme is managed by the Golden Eagle Trust in partnership with, and funded by, the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. 

Over the coming years, we expect more of the 10 territorial pairs of White-tailed Eagles monitored and located this spring, between Cork and Galway, to nest, lay eggs and hopefully rear young.  Other maturing birds, released in recent years are also likely to augment the breeding population over time.  It is hoped that in time these Irish bred chicks, from Lough Derg, will survive and breed themselves in 2017 or thereafter.

All White-tailed Eagle and Golden Eagle breeding attempts are prone to natural failures, over the long 4-5 month breeding season and can encounter a range of constraints and obstacles.  Young pairs of breeding eagles are prone to failure before they gradually gain the wide array of skills required for successful breeding.  These skills include nest building, continuous uninterrupted incubation, maintaining female body condition and continuously provisioning chicks with regular live prey.

This year 3 White-tailed Eagle pairs attempted to breed and laid eggs in Counties Kerry and Clare.  One pair failed toward the end of the 6 week incubation period.  This pair is still on site and hopefully in a mere 6 month’s time they will begin to breed again next spring.  Another pair that nested in Killarney National Park hatched at least one chick which survived to within 3-4 weeks of fledging.  But it was very disappointing to find that the new nest had collapsed causing the death of the chick, shortly before it was due to fledge.  It seems likely that the nest material (vegetation, sods and dead branches) dried out and shrank significantly in the recent dry spell of weather. 

The Mountshannon nesting pair also faced its own problems before the two strong chicks took to the skies.  As part of the plan to enhance the security around the well known nest site and increase public awareness of eagles a camera was installed near the nest and several branches were removed.  This allowed for the continuous guarding and monitoring of the nest from a safe distance on the Lough shore.  These changes apparently triggered a negative response from the adults and the adults only flew near to the nest subsequently, without landing on the nest.  The well grown chicks were provisioned with food on the nest and subsequently fledged in great condition and at the anticipated date.

The two chicks are expected to stay around the islands and western shoreline of Lough Derg, north and south of Mountshannon, for the coming weeks with their parents.  Sometime in the autumn these juveniles will leave their parents’ territory and begin a 3-4 year nomadic life before settling in their own separate territories before attempting to breed themselves.

The eggs were laid in County Clare in late March. The Mountshannon breeding adults, a five year old male and four year old female, were both collected on the island of Frøya, off the west coast of Norway. This pair laid eggs in 2012 but failed to hatch chicks. However by January 2013 they had already built a new nest.

The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan, T.D., said, “I am truly delighted with this news, marking a great step forward in this ambitious project. It is a joy to see these magnificent birds of prey being reintroduced in Ireland. Congratulations to all involved in Killarney and Clare. My wish now is that these young eagles will have a long life in our skies.”

“This day has been six years in the making but to witness the first flight of a wild Irish-bred White-tailed Eagle here in Mountshannon was a fabulous moment”, said Dr. Allan Mee, project manager for the Golden Eagle Trust. “These two young eagles represent the first of what we hope are many more Irish bred White-tailed Eagles to fledge from nests over the next few years and themselves form the basis for a viable self-sustaining Irish population. The signs are good that we can achieve this with 10 or more pairs likely to breed annually over the next few years. While there is still a lot of hard work to be done to achieve this goal we shouldsavourthis day as a really important milestone in the recovery of this iconic species.  And what better place for White-tailed Eagles to make their comeback than Lough Derg with an abundant supply of potential nest sites and fish for food and set amongst some of Ireland’s most wonderful scenery! This is the second year this pair has nested here and provided a unique opportunity for both local people and visitors to watch nesting eagles. It is likely that this pair will nest here for many more years to come and not only contribute to the recovery of the species but to the growing awareness needed to safeguard our natural heritage.  We look forward to many more years of chicks flying from nests in East Clare.  Along with the help and close cooperation of local communities, such as at Mountshannon, we can help safeguard their future.”

John Harvey, Chairman of Mountshannon Community Council, expressed the delight felt locally at the news of the first White-tailed Eagles to fledge in Ireland in over 110 years. “The pair of White-tailed Eagles took up residence here two years ago and has been an unexpected but very welcome addition to the heritage of East Clare. Ever since they began nesting this year in February local people have taken a keen interest and helped monitor the progress of the pair. Last year the pair failed to hatch chicks so we were really hopeful things would work out this year and we would see chicks leave the nest. We hope that the association between Mountshannon and the eagles will continue for many years to come!”

Despite all the problems and setbacks Irish White-tailed Eagles have endured since they were first released in 2007, they continue to make important incremental steps each year, as part of the long term restoration project.  The challenges facing fishing or hunting birds can be periodically difficult as can the challenges facing breeding birds.  But as the small Irish White-tailed Eagle breeding population grows, we can hopefully see these breeding birds gain experience and slowly expand their limited range.

The Golden Eagle Trust would like to publically acknowledge the support of scores of individuals, volunteers, landowners, walkers and boating enthusiasts for their support and protection of territorial eagles from Galway to Cork, but especially in Mountshannon, Co. Clare and in Kerry.  Despite a few incursions onto the nesting island by outside visitors, the local boating and fishing community in and around Mountshannon have been totally supportive and co-operative, which has been central to the successful fledging of these birds.  We hope more people can visit Mountshannon and hopefully enjoy the unique spectacle of a family group of eagles wheeling above the beautiful scenery of Lough Derg.

Wild White-Tailed Eagle chicks fledge in Ireland after 110 years
Wed8th May 2013

White-tailed Eagles have successfully hatched chicks in Ireland for the first time in over 110 years. In the last week a pair was confirmed to have hatched chicks at a nest near Mountshannon, Co Clare. This pair also created history in 2012 when they nested for the first time. A second pair, in Killarney National Park, Co. Kerry, successfully hatched chicks in the past few days having laid eggs in late March. These are the first chicks of the high profile reintroduction programme which began in 2007 with the release of young Norwegian eagles in Killarney National Park as part of the White-tailed Eagle reintroduction programme developed and funded by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in partnership with Golden Eagle Trust.  

Nesting began in late March with pairs laying eggs in nests in Clare and Killarney. The Mountshannon breeding pair, a five year old male and four year old female, was collected on the island of Frøya off the west coast of Norway. This pair laid eggs in 2012 but failed to hatch chicks. However by January 2013 had already built a new nest. The Killarney breeding pair, a six year old female and five year old male, was collected on islands in Flatanger and Hitra, Norway, in 2007 and 2008. The Killarney female spent part of the winter in early 2009 in the Scottish Highlands before returning to Kerry. All birds were released in Killarney National Park, Co. Kerry, as part of the White-tailed Eagle reintroduction programme. Several pairs have now established themselves in counties Kerry, Cork, Clare and Galway at coastal and inland lake sites.

The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan T.D. said "This is a momentous occasion in that we are now witnessing the first white-tailed eagles born in the wild in Ireland in over 100 years."

We are delighted that White-tailed Eagles are now nesting successfully in Clare and Kerry”, said Dr. Allan Mee, project manager for the Golden Eagle Trust. “Last years’ nesting attempt by the Clare pair was a momentous event for the species recovery in Ireland. However, the species has now taken the next important step by producing the first chicks on the reintroduction programme. This is another milestone for the project as producing and fledging chicks in nests in Ireland is critical for the projects’ success. Ultimately the viability of the reintroduced programme depends on these chicks going on to breed themselves in Ireland. Each step brings us closer to that goal. Many people have helped us reach this goal over the years. We especially wish to thank local communities in Mountshannon and Whitegate, Co. Clare, and in the Killarney and wider South Kerry area for their goodwill and continued support. The eagles have benefitted from widespread support from communities and landowners, and their presence enhances rural economic values, especially wildlife tourism. Special thanks also go to our friends in Norway who put their faith in the reintroduction programme in Ireland by providing birds and also supporting us through some difficult times.   

In Norway, the Norwegian team cooperating with the Irish Reintroduction Programme “was delighted to hear of the first successful hatching of chicks in Ireland, an important milestone on the road to a self-sustaining population of these magnificent birds. Our congratulations to the Irish project team, and to the Irish government who has supported the scheme, including taking measures to address the poisoning threat to the eagles and to the wider environment which the projects work revealed. The constructive approach of Ireland has been an impressive feature of the reintroduction, and we look forward to assisting further with your efforts”. The Norwegian effort to collect chicks for the Irish Reintroduction was composed of local volunteers, with coordination by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research and Norwegian Ornithological Society

The news of nesting White-tailed Eagles has generated alot of excitement locally in east Clare and Kerry and is likely to attract the attention of people keen to see the birds. However disturbance, particularly during the early stages of nesting when the birds are on eggs or have small chicks, would be detrimental to the pair’s success. “We are very conscious of the risk of disturbing the birds especially at this stage of nesting”Dr. Mee added. Please note that it is an offence under the Wildlife Act (1976) to willfully disturb White-tailed Eagles at the nest. Disturbance could result in the birds leaving the small chicks unguarded for a period during which they could be predated or be chilled or the birds could desert the site. We would caution people not to approach the nest area but instead avail of the unique opportunity to watch from a nesting pair of sea eagles from nearby Mountshannon pier. Information on the birds, their ecology and conservation will be available. We would like to acknowledge the goodwill and assistance of local people in the Mountshannon area, Mountshannon Community Council, local angling, gun clubs and Clare County Council before and during the nesting period“.

Ronan Hannigan, Chairman of the Golden Eagle Trust stated: “We really appreciate the huge level of support received for all our restoration projects, particularly at grass root level.  White Tailed Eagles depend on the ongoing support of landowners, fishermen, clubs, farmers, local businesses, traders, tourists and school children.  They hopefully now will be a more regular sight all over the West of Ireland.” Hannigan went on to say “Many Companies have sponsored the projects, including Killarney Resorts Ltd (Liebherr), KPMG, Printrun Limited and Dublin Zoo, to whom we are very grateful.  A special thanks to Norway for giving such a unique gift to the people of Ireland.  The hatching of White-tailed Eagle chicks in Ireland again after over 100 years will no doubt boost tourism in this Year of the Gathering, but also in the years to come, and hopefully will restore some of our magical past”.

Whatever the outcome of these nesting attempts, the signs are good for future breeding in the area and at a number of other sites across Ireland in the near future. White-tailed Eagles can live for 25-30 years and generally mate for life with adult pairs remaining within their home range throughout the year. First time breeders, especially young birds, often fail at their first attempt. However, with the goodwill and support of local communities the species should have a bright future in Ireland.


  • The White-tailed Eagle, Golden Eagle, and Red Kite Reintroduction Projects in the Republic of Ireland are managed by the Golden Eagle Trust in partnership with the National Parks & Wildlife Service of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in the Republic of Ireland. 
  • White-tailed Eagle chicks were collected under licence in Norway and transported to Ireland for release.
  • One hundred young White-tailed Eagles were released between 2007 and 2011 in Killarney National Park, Co. Kerry. To date 27 birds have been recovered dead.
  • Over the past six years White-tailed Sea Eagles have dispersed throughout Ireland and beyond. Many eagles have been reported from Northern Ireland and at least six birds have travelled to Scotland. One male that spend 8 months away from Kerry in 2009 travelled over 2,000 kilometres to the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland before returning to Kerry. In early 2011 this male was found paired with a female in south Kerry. Immature White-tailed Sea Eagles may disperse over a wide area but once birds begin to mature and pair up at 4-5 years old they establish territories along the coast and inland lakes where they are resident throughout their lifetime.
  • Historically, the White-tailed Sea Eagle was once a respected and conspicuous part of the Irish landscape, before it was driven to extinction in the early 20th century by human persecution.
  • White-tailed Eagle tourism brings in an additional £5 million annually to the local economy of the Isle of Mull, Scotland.
Tue22nd Jan 2013

A new publication, Birds through Irish Eyes, by Anthony McGeehan, and two recent Irish Times articles (15/12/2012 & 19/01/2013), by Michael Viney, have raised the question whether Red Kites were ever found in Ireland and whether bird of prey reintroductions are necessary.  The suggestion in the book that the ‘introduction’ of Red Kite was ‘unethical’ is a slight on the Irish Raptor Study Group, the Northern Irish Raptor Study Group, all the Red Kite Projects Managers in Wicklow, Down and Dublin (2007-2013), the judgement of the statutory licensing authorities in both host jurisdictions and the donor country (Wales), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Golden Eagle Trust. The cumulative impact of 3 separate assertions, from Anthony McGeehan and Michael Viney, who are highly regarded, is now accruing.   These comments could be perceived as questioning the integrity of the individuals and bodies involved and now warrant an explanatory response.

The comments on the merits of reintroduction are less serious, as there is no sacrosanct view regarding the use of scarce resources and the selection of conservation priorities.  Irish raptor reintroductions have been openly and persistently criticised, by a number of influential Irish ornithologists and birdwatchers, since they began in 2001.  They require close scrutiny and a wide spectrum of criticism, if they are to remain vibrant going forward.  Raptors are now an important part of Ireland’s conservation management, at levels more akin to the European conservation norms.  Recent raptor efforts have broadened the once narrow bird conservation outlook, which was limited by resources, of the previous decades. There is some unease about the raptor initiatives and the emerging levels of public engagement, adopted by the established conservation sector.  Irish conservationists cannot tackle the myriad of difficulties faced by nature, on their own - recent decades of habitat and species decline demonstrate this point.  More so than any suite of Irish birds, these avian predators are reliant on good public awareness.

(1) Irish Red Kite history

The review states McGeehan clearly suspects the red kite, released in County Down, “was never here”.  But kites were living in Ireland, across the seasons, as documented in numerous centuries and across a third of the counties.  The majority of other native species, ‘presumed’ to have bred here historically, have no proof positive of their former breeding status, prior to the 1800s.  There are no British Trust for Onithology nest record cards or black and white photographs of Buzzard or Hen Harrier nests, prior to or, during the 16-18th Centuries, for example.  The carefully worded IUCN Guidelines, governing reintroduction best practice, anticipated these problems, and state in Section 4 a iii, the release “site should be within the historic range of the species” and in the preamble to the guidelines they mention that reintroduction is a “useful tool for restoring a species to an original habitat” and one should “assess the previous relationship of the species to the habitat into which the reintroduction is to take place”

Ireland’s Lost Birds’

5 pages of Red Kite evidence in Gordon D’Arcy ground-breaking book, (Ireland’s Lost Birds, 1999), concerning the history of extinct native birds, has failed to convince McGeehan, who may have deferred to the opinion of Thompson (1850) or others.  D’Arcy quotes references from Smith (1750 & 1756) who indicated Kites were breeding in Cork and Waterford and were common, like Buzzards, across parts of the country.   There are also references to Kites that were found and killed in Londonderry and Antrim (bordering County Down).  Several Irish Statutes are mentioned, offering a bounty for killing vermin including kites.  Why would a kite be listed as vermin, if it was not present during the hatching time (breeding season) of young domestic fowl and Gamebirds?  This is the primary source of evidence of the kite’s former presence in Ireland and the details below merely try to augment D’Arcy’s findings.  In fairness to McGeehan, he may not have been aware of the following materials.

Irish Archaeology

Dr Derek Yalden has compiled a database of 9839 birds, species and individuals, identified in British and Irish Archaeological excavations.  This list includes 7 recovered and verified Irish Red Kite bones from Roscrea, Lough Gur and five sites around Dublin, across a wide time span.  This may appear like quite a small number.  But if one puts it in context, it is actually quite significant, in terms of the paucity of bird remains found in Ireland generally.  For example, one of our commonest birds, Domestic Fowl, only has 30 individuals recorded and Crane, which was relatively numerous, only has 21 recovered individuals.  There is clearly a dearth of published Archaeological bird bone research in Ireland, in comparison to mammalian studies. 

Nonetheless, the extent of raptor bird bone records, from this list, is quite revealing and presents a tantalising glimpse into the status of woodland and wetland raptors prior to the persistent expansion of farming.  The Irish raptor bone list, in numerical order, is as follows; Buzzard (10 individuals), Red Kite (7), White-tailed Sea Eagle (6), Goshawk (5), Marsh Harrier (4), Peregrine and Sparrowhawk (3 each), Kestrel, Osprey, Barn Owl, Hen Harrier (2) Long eared Owl, Golden Eagle (1).  So the question arises; why would these recoveries suggest that the Red Kite was the second commonest raptor in Ireland, if it was never found in Ireland?  The different size of species’ bones and the unknown past human associations with different raptor species, may distort the numerical order of the above list.  But it clearly suggests that kites were once a well known raptor in Ireland.  Smith’s reputation and account of kites, (1750-1774), which were rather arbitrarily dismissed by Thompson in 1850, may merit a more benign contemporary consideration.

Irish Language

Even if only a small minority of people are familiar with Irish - it does contain a legitimate form of historical record.  Kites probably became extinct around the early 1800s and therefore many of the old records will be in Irish, especially prior to the 1600s.  If we are genuine about discovering our avian past, archaeology and the Irish manuscripts, are two resources that have to be placed alongside 19th century English Natural History books. 

Niall O Dónaill, Foclóir Gaeilge- Béarla, 1977, gives the following

Cúr = Kite, Cubhar = Cúr (i.e. look up cúr), Préachán na gcearc = Hen Harrier, Kite

Tomás de Bhaldraithe, English- Irish Dictionary, 1959, gives the following

Kite = Orn. Cúr

Rev Patrick S. Dinneen, Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla, 1927, Cromán = Crow, Kite

Préachán ceirteach = a kite, Préachán geárr = a glede or buzzard (geárr = sharp)

Préachán na gcearc = a kite or a scald crow, Garbh Sheabhac = glede   (garbh means rough and seabhac means hawk), [Glede is an Olde Anglo Saxon or Anglo Irish word for kite]

Edward Dwelly, Scots Gaelic Dictionary, 1901

Préachán Ceirteach = Red Kite, Clamhan gobhlach = a kite

Edward O Reilly & John O Donovan, An Irish-English Dictionary, 1864

Préachán ceirteach = a kite, any ravenous bird, Préachán na gcearc = a kite, a Ringtail

Thomas de Vere Coneys, Focloir Gaoidhilge – Sacs- bearla, 1814

Préachán ceirteach = a kite, Preachán geárr = a glede, a buzzard

John O Brien & Edward Lhuyd, Focalóir Gaoidhilge-sax-bhéarla, 1768,

Préachán na gcearc = Ringtail, Préachán ceirteach = a kite

Bedel, 1662, Préachán na gcearc and Préachán ceirteach

[If you were to solely look at O Dónaill’s standard Irish-English dictionary (1977), you would see Kite (toy) given as Préachán ceirteach.  This can be traced back via, McCionnaith’s English-Irish dictionary (1936), to, O Neill Lane’s English-Irish Dictionary (1921), which has toy kite as Préachán na gceirteach.  This construct has no reference and nor is it included in earlier dictionaries.  Dinneen’s Irish-English dictionary (1927) does not even mention toy kite. Eitleog is the normal Irish vernacular for toy kite.  In O Brien & Lhuyd’s Irish-English dictionary (1786), eitleóg is given as bat and there is no mention of toy kite.  So it appears that some time in the late 19th or early 20th century, scholars attached the previous name for bats or red kite to the newly arrived toy kite, which is rather appropriate when you consider their respective sheering flight patterns of each.]

This repetitive list shows that Irish speakers, from at least 1662 to 1927, regarded ‘Préachán ceirteach’ as a kite among a variety of other names for kites.  ‘Ceirteach’ means cloth, rag or clothes.  It infers ownership and possession of the cloths/rags by the kite.  

Préachán Ceirteach’ is not a mere translation from English, Olde English or Anglo-Saxon words.  It apparently reflects Irish-speaking people simply observing Red Kites carrying off rags and clothes, from around people’s settlements, to build nests.  Kite workers in Britain and Ireland can confirm that kites use items of wool, cloths, rags, gloves, plastic or rubbish to decorate nests – it is the best way to separate a kite nest from a buzzard nest. 

Shakespeare himself noted the same kite trait, when he said “when the kite breeds, look to lesser linen” – which is generally understood as a warning that during the kite nesting season, not to leave out your laundry to dry on the hedge, because the kite could snatch them for lining its nest.

An account from Phoenix Park

Phoenix Park dates back to 1662, when the Duke of Ormonde fenced off land north of the Liffey and established a Royal Hunting Park for visiting British Monarchs.  In 1669, Phoenix Park was stocked with deer, pheasant and partridge.  Colonel Edward Cooke, who was one of the keepers of the Park, wrote about the foxes, kites and poachers carrying off all the partridges.  The evidence of the presence of kites during the summer or connected with nest building is all we can legitimately expect, as they was little reason to systematically record the nests of non falconry birds in the distant past.


County Londonderry, Ireland, Civil Parishes Tamlaghtard or Magilligan (description from Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland 1837.) (see www.from-ireland.net/lewsis/derry/tamlaghtard.htm)

The 5th paragraph states:  “some eagles breed in the heights of Benyevenagh; kites and hawks abound there”.  There are also references to the abundance of nearby rabbits [36,000-48,000 sold to the hatters] and pigeons.  This reference supports D’Arcy’s reference to the statistical survey of Londonderry (Sampson 1802), “Milvus, kite is frequently seen hovering over poultry”.

Kildare Poems 1330

On the web there are also references to Glede (Anglo – Saxon word for kite) from the Kildare Poems, written by the Anglo-Irish in the Middle Ages, sometime in the 1330s.  Look at ‘Satire’ section 5 and ‘Song of Michael of Kildare’ section 4. (see  http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E300000-001/text004.html)

St Colman’s Ducks

Under www.libraryireland.com/articles/DucksJoyceWonders/index.php  there is a mention of kites in the County Wexford Legend, “St. Colman’s Ducks”.  The tale tells of a group of ducks that were forded special protection by the dead saint in the 8th century.  A kite was once seen to fly off with one of the ducks, thought to be Teal.  It landed in a nearby tree and as it set about killing his prey, the kite fell to the ground and died – as witnessed by several people.

Irish Falconry

Liam Ó Broin, the author of The Sparrowhawk – A Manual for Hawking (ISBN no 09521029 00), self published, 1992, has carried out detailed research on Irish raptors.  His book contains a detailed account of the history of Irish Falconry.  He has uncovered documentary proof of Irish bred Goshawks being exported, to Spanish and Portuguese Kings, and foreign correspondence on how suitable the imported Irish birds were.  He also has evidence for Irish bred Hobbies being used and exported for falconry. 

The relevance of this point, as regards our kite inquiry, is that Goshawk and Hobby are not fully recognised in some of our primary ornithological reference books either – just like Red Kites.  Yet, there is archival literary proof that Irish bred Goshawk and Hobbies were collected and exported from Ireland for falconry.  Therefore the much vaunted seminal Ornithological accounts, from the middle and latter 19th century, have a limited temporal accuracy, as regards the status of many extinct or rare Irish Birds.  Our true native avifauna list cannot be solely defined by the safety and certainty of books written by our earliest exceptional Naturalists.  We need to look further afield.

Present Day Red Kite Ecology and Dispersal within the British Isles

Because kites survived for longer in parts of Britain, than Ireland, and because of a greater volume of written records, their former historical occurrence and abundance in Britain is more widely accepted.  As a result of a reintroduction programme, that began in 1989, on the Black Isle; during the 1990s, it was well established that up to 10% of first year Scottish Kites spent their first winter in Ireland. (See BTO Migration Atlas).

These records include released Scottish birds; poisoned in Laois, poisoned in Waterford, overwintering in Rogerstown, Dublin, overwintering in Tullow, Carlow and one poisoned near Glenarm, Antrim.  The released Scottish kites quickly established two dispersal routes to Ireland; one took them SW from Inverness through the Great Glen and down as far as Argyll and out to the Kintyre Peninsula and onward toward Rathlin and Antrim, the second route was used by kites from both the Inverness and Central Scotland release schemes, flying SW to Dumfries and Galloway and out onto the Rinns of Galloway, before crossing to Down and sometimes Antrim.  The subsequent Red Kite releases in Dumfries & Galloway and Aberdeen have also provided several Red Kite records in Ireland, from Donegal, Down and Wicklow - see Adam McClure’s recent RSPB Kite newsletter.  It is believed that all Scottish kites, wintering in Ireland, reach or pass through County Antrim or County Down.

The book and articles, that concern us, may contain two glaring contradictions, when examined closely.  Firstly,  consider the views, “were never here”, and then, “in the natural way of things, he argues, wandering juveniles can increase the range of their species ‘under their own steam’, rather than be repatriated by PR zealots” and “ get habitats right, he urges, and pioneering wanderers will find them - or not, as nature decides”.  Now, if wandering Scottish Kites could have found County Down by themselves, in the future, how come similar wandering kites, from a once vibrant Scottish population, never found County Down or County Antrim, a mere 35km or 20km away, respectively?  To infer that Gordon D’Arcy’s book “seemed to allow that kites might have roamed north from Leinster” is to miss the larger context of the kite’s former range.  Neither the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, nor the short sea crossing to Scotland, would have had little or no impact on the range expansion of the, once abundant, British Red Kite population.  The habitat condition would have been more pristine in the past.  There were several thousand years for this chance event to occur.  But of course Scottish and Irish Red Kites would have mixed in the past, if you consider all the evidence, including the influence of recognised historical oscillating weather patterns.

Secondly, it may be a contradiction to infer that, “since 2008, as he sees it, the provenance of any red kite in the Irish skies is forever tainted”.  Because the kites in Irish skies, up to 2008, were predominantly reintroduced Scottish kites.  Red Kites were reintroduced in Wicklow in 2007 and since 1990 reintroduced Scottish Red Kites, have turned up or passed through Northern Ireland annually.  It is unclear whether these kites are viewed, by the author, as tainted or not. If not, this apparent contradiction is not valid.  This argument goes back to 2001, when another well known birdwatcher complained that Golden Eagles in Ireland could no longer be positively ticked, because they were released birds.  So 13 years later, there are still competing arguments between the merits of restoring a native species over an individual birdwatcher’s annual tick list total. 

Summary of Historical Irish Kite Records

1.       The kite records in Ireland are from a wide geographical area, especially from the richer more afforested landscapes, east of the Shannon – ( See D’Arcy’s Lost Irish Birds, pages 49-55).  11 of the 32 counties, on the Ireland of Island, have former kite references including; Antrim, Derry/Londonderry, Cavan, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Limerick, Cork, Waterford and Wexford.

2.       The material and documentary kite evidence in Ireland is spread over a wide time period, including the 6th, 10-11th, 12th, 13-14th, 17th, 18th and early 19th century.

3.       The Archaeological evidence, collected to date, suggests that Red Kites may have been the second commonest bird of prey in Ireland, historically.  Though this ranking could quickly change with future excavations, this concrete evidence of their former occurrence cannot be ignored or dismissed.

4.       Numerous Irish references suggested that Irish people were familiar with kite nesting traits and named the bird accordingly.

5.       The kite records in Ireland are found in several different languages including Old Irish, Latin, Middle Irish, Anglo-Irish, Irish and English.

6.       The kite records in Ireland, when examined and considered, demonstrate that kites were present throughout the year, in some parts of the country at least (Cork).  They were at least resident in the summer elsewhere – as they were a perceived threat to young goslings, ducklings, possibly young or newly released partridge.  They returned to an area outside of Belfast annually - when it was time to sheer the sheep.

7.       The extinction of the kite was probably due to sustained persecution, culminating in the eradication of a more exposed breeding population, after the almost complete deforestation of Ireland by 1800 (see Reading the Irish Landscape, Frank Mitchell, and the data on trade in timber exports and game rearing since Tudor times).

The primacy of the Oral tradition and the paucity of earlier written evidence in Ireland, compared to Britain, cannot be underestimated when searching for Irish kite records. The inherent limitations, of a variety of key reference materials, needs to be fully recognised.  For example, the bibliography for Holloway’s Historical Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland, only contains 11 solely Irish references from a total list of 693 references. 

If we did nothing, the reintroduced Scottish kite population, especially in Dumfries and Galloway, would establish itself in Northern Ireland within the next 30-40 years or earlier.  But what is ethical about waiting for a reintroduced population to wander and settle in Ireland?


(2) The Merits of Reintroduction

‘Don’t do that – do this’ is an age old argument.  This type of mindset could lead one to flippantly suggest, ‘why carry out any manner of conservation research, management or writing? – go trap some crows instead’.  In the mid 1990s, the IRSG was told by Dúchas that a national survey of Hen Harriers was a much greater priority than releasing Golden Eagles, so we were the catalyst in establishing and facilitating the first national Hen Harrier survey in 1998-1999.  Afterwards, another set of obstacles and priorities were placed in our way.  Now another labyrinthine argument, to focus on habitat work before species actions, is put forward.  There is a constant pendulum of effort, from species to habitat, among conservation priorities.  Many people try to work on both simultaneously.  But the kite habitat was already in situ – look at the expanding County Wicklow and County Down breeding kite populations. 

Of course there are difficulties, often with policies and enforcement, as well as habitat.  We were once advised to lobby former Agricultural and Environmental statutory management and seek changes to the poisoning legislation, as a prelude to a raptor release scheme, but it was a waste of time.  It took an official European Complaint to finally get the political consent to step forward, about 50 years, and finally tackle illegal poisoning in the Republic of Ireland.  What did the statutory authorities do, over two decades, to tackle the known plight of Buzzard poisonings in the Republic of Ireland, prior to the restoration programmes?  Despite notable exceptions, they did very little, in our view.  One ornithologist has even suggested the onus is on raptor workers to ensure compliance with statutory agricultural and environmental poisoning requirements, enacted by National and European legislation!

The spread of the Buzzard has been greatly enhanced by the increasing public awareness and tolerance of bird of prey and the poisoning issue, in the four corners of this island, largely initiated by the release programmes.  The loss of several Red Kites in Dublin, in 2011, has highlighted the underlying threat from Rodenticides, alongside Birdwatch Ireland’s Barn Owl research, and the ongoing cooperation with the Department of Agriculture on the matter, will also benefit Buzzards over time.  We can all appreciate the inherent value of more Buzzards, eagles and kites improving our natural world.  But that expansion was stymied for decades by an official indifference to poisoning.  Let us be honest about that and not simply ignore years of anti-poisoning campaigning by raptor workers.  The expansion of Buzzards is not merely a result of their natural range expansion dynamics – it was also the result of suppressing their primary constraint, namely poisoning.

Obviously many of us are demoralised and exhausted by the continuing loss of Biodiversity in Ireland.  But small patches of nature and semi-natural habitats remain across Ireland.  Yes, our terrestrial wilderness is long gone, but nature still sustains us and some of us like to think we can make a small difference. Does that mean we should give up?  Too often, Irish conservation has been in defensive mode, bemoaning the encroachment of competing sectors or trying to tackle yet another threat.  But at times, an assertive pro-active approach can be the best form of defence.  For too long, our society was indifferent or tolerant of the loss of species, and raptors bore the brunt of that indifference.  It would be naive to wait for the perfect moment to launch any bird of prey programme in Ireland.

A small band of raptor enthusiasts, North and South, are no longer content with centuries of “wildlife weeding”, which wiped out so many Irish birds of prey.  We submit that Irish birds of prey deserve a bit of effort NOW, after three hundred years of persecution, negativity and indifference.  Everybody has their own priorities and perspectives, which they are free to choose.   We are tackling poisoning, upland habitats, and policy issues as part of our work programmes.  It used to be said that former US President, Jimmy Carter, ‘could not chew gum and tie his shoelaces at the same time’ – hopefully Irish raptor workers can continue to do somewhat better.


Red Kite with gloves
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