Efforts to reintroduce White-tailed Eagles to southern England have just suffered a serious setback. It has been announced that two of the 25 individuals released on to the Isle of Wight since 2019 have been recovered dead.


The eagles were found following “multiagency operations” in the south of England. One bird is known to have been found in Dorset at the end of January, and the other is rumoured to be in Sussex.

Both birds are currently undergoing post-mortem examinations, including toxicology to establish whether they have been deliberately poisoned. The police are investigating and have appealed for more information.

The White-tailed Eagle release project, run by Forestry England and the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, aims to bring these massive eagles, with a wingspan of up to 2.5m, back to Southern England after an absence of 240 years. The birds are native to Britain but were wiped out in England in the 18th century and in Scotland by the beginning of the 20th. The project to reintroduce them to Scotland has been highly successful; there are now 120 breeding pairs.

While there has been almost universal disappointment and dismay expressed by conservationists and local residents, West Dorset MP Chris Loder appeared to play down the seriousness of the incident. In a tweet on 11 Feb, he wrote: “Dorset is not the place for eagles to be reintroduced … I want Dorset Police to focus on County Lines rather than spend time and resources on this.”

Mr Loder then posted a photo of an eagle with a lamb, saying “For local people asking why I don’t want eagles in Dorset, killing our lambs and plaguing our farmers…. These pictures say a thousand words.” The photographer concerned, Peter Cairns, contacted Mr Loder publicly on Twitter to explain that he had used an already dead lamb to feed to a captive eagle for an editorial story. The birds are being introduced into the Isle of Wight, not Dorset.

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The eagles are predators on a wide variety of foods, mainly fish and birds, which abound in the waters around the Isle of Wight. Says Andy Lester, Conservation Officer for Hampshire Ornithological Society: “These majestic hunters aren’t fussy about where they find food and are quite content with fish scraps and dead meat. See one at large, however, and the remarkable panic set off among all kinds of birds reflects the eagle’s power and eclectic tastes.”

In Scotland, farmers have long been wary about White-tailed Eagles and their potential danger to lambs and other livestock. While most studies have suggested that they take very few lambs (less than 2% of deaths among lambs were linked to eagles in one study, even where the birds were common), a report from Scottish Natural Heritage in 2019 showed that there can potentially be conflict. However, mitigation measures, such as moving eagle nests away from sheep farms (the birds are essentially lazy), can be highly effective. Conservationists say the effect on livestock in the Isle of Wight area, where there is so much other food around, is likely to be minimal.

Whatever the fears might be, the white-tailed Eagle introduction project has been granted licences by Natural England and it is illegal to kill or interfere with the birds.


Main image: © Dorset Police


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Dominic CouzensBird expert and best selling nature author

Dominic Couzens is a British birdwatcher, author and journalist specialising in avian and natural history subjects.