Britain’s largest bird of prey, the sea eagle, is restored to the Isle of Wight after an absence of 239 years

In July of 2019, sea eagles returned to the Isle of Wight 239 years after they were last seen there. Six chicks brought from Scotland were reintroduced to the island as part of a program to reintroduce the birds to England’s south coast.

Also known as white-tailed eagles, the birds will be released into the wild in the next few weeks. 60 juvenile sea eagles—which will eventually have a wingspan of up to 2.4 meters (8 feet)—will be released on the island over the coming five years, and are expected to start breeding there by 2024.

Bruce Rothnie, South Forest Management Director, at Forestry England, said, “Our woodlands provide a haven for wildlife and we hope that they will become home to these incredible birds on the Isle of Wight. This long term project is a great opportunity to help to restore the white-tailed eagle to the South Coast of England and we are proud to be involved in helping to bring back this rarest of birds to Britain.

The plans to return white-tailed eagles to the South of England took a major step forward back in April of 2019, when a licence was issued by the Government’s wildlife licensing authority, Natural England. The licence to reintroduce Britain’s largest bird of prey was granted to The Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation and Forestry England who will undertake a five year reintroduction program based on the Isle of Wight.

White-tailed eagles were once widespread across Southern Britain until the eighteenth century when persecution and human activity lead to the birds being wiped out. The last known breeding place in the region was recorded at Culver Cliff on the Isle of Wight in 1780.

The project could give a significant boost to the Island economy after a similar scheme on The Isle of Mull was found to have boosted its local economy by up to £5 million a year.

Reintroducing these birds is a priority in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan. Implementation of the licence will be closely monitored by Natural England. Public support for the project has been high with 76 per cent of local people surveyed supporting the reintroduction of the birds to the area.

The majestic white-tailed eagle has a wing span over eight foot and a brown plumage with a pale head and distinctive white tail. Over the next five years young birds, bred in the wild in Scotland, will be reintroduced on Forestry England woodland on the Isle of Wight. The young birds will be released once they are familiar with their new home and will initially be fed to encourage them to settle along the South Coast.

It will take several years for the young birds to become established and breeding is not expected to start until at least 2024. During this time the birds will be closely monitored using satellite tracking devices. Data on the movement of the birds will be available on the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation website and once the birds are well established it is hoped that viewing areas can be set up to allow visitors to observe the birds.

The Isle of Wight was chosen as a location for the project given its central position on the South Coast, an ideal habitat for these coastal loving birds. In time it is hoped the birds will spread east and west along the coast and also help to link up existing populations of white-tailed eagles living in Ireland and the Netherlands.

The Isle of Wight offers an ideal habitat for the birds, with its numerous potential nesting sites in woods and cliffs, and is located close to highly suitable foraging areas for fish and other food in the Solent and surrounding estuaries.

Roy Dennis, Founder of The Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation concluded, “White-tailed eagles were once a common sight in England and southern Europe but were lost centuries ago. This project aims to reverse that situation by restoring the eagles to their ancestral nesting places. I can remember as a lad walking along Culver Cliffs to see where the eagles had once lived. It is incredible now to be able to play a part in returning these birds back to their home. We look forward to working with a range of organisations on the Island, and in the Solent area, to help make this exciting project a success.

Photo of sea eagle in Scotland by Laurie Campbell / Roy Dennis Foundation.

See Forestry England website.

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