The next phase of a long-term scientific collaboration to restore a native and once-extinct bird to Irish skies is about to take off in Munster.
It is being led by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.
Some 23 white-tailed eagle chicks which arrived in Kerry last month are currently being monitored by the NPWS before being released into the wild in the next few weeks.
Four sites have been chosen for the release - Killarney National Park, along the River Shannon, on the lower Shannon estuary, and in Waterford.
The chicks were collected from nests in West-Central Norway by that country’s Institute for Nature Research and flown to Kerry Airport.
These magnificent birds, which can live for up to 20 years, have a wingspan of up to 2.4 metres and were once a striking element of Ireland’s natural landscape.
But they were driven to extinction in the 19th and early 20th century by human persecution. The reintroduction programme, which began in 2007, seeks to reverse that impact.
Last year, 10 eagles were released along the River Shannon. Nine of them survived their first year.
Satellite tracking by the Global Positioning System (GPS) recorded the birds in almost all Irish counties.
The first of the eagles began breeding in 2012 at Lough Derg in Clare. A small population of eight to 10 pairs have since successfully fledged over 30 chicks, having grown feathers big enough to enable them to fly the nest.
One nesting pair produced three chicks, a rare occurrence, even in extensive wild populations in Norway.
Significantly, the adult female at this nest became the first Irish-bred eagle to successfully breed.
Some Irish-bred eagles are now reaching maturity and starting to breed in the wild themselves. However, they are still vulnerable to illegal poisoning, shooting and collision with wind turbines.
The breeding population was also negatively impacted by Avian Influenza in 2018 and by Storm Hannah in 2019, and by adverse weather this year when pairs were on the nest.
Over the past 14 years, there have been many sightings of the White-tailed Sea Eagles dispersed across Ireland and beyond. Many of these were in Northern Ireland.
At least seven have also been recorded in Britain.
In 2020 and 2021, some 10 white-tailed eagle pairs held territory in Ireland across four counties: Kerry (7 pairs), Galway (1), Tipperary (1) and Cork (1).
At least nine pairs laid eggs in Kerry (6 pairs), Cork (1), Tipperary (1) and Galway (1). Over 30 Irish-bred white-tailed eagle chicks have fledged to date.
The white-tailed sea eagle, the largest bird of prey in Ireland, feeds primarily on fish as well as on birds and to a lesser extent on small mammals, and carrion (dead animals). Most pairs settle on territories around the coast and large freshwater lakes to breed.
Minister of State Malcolm Noonan said the restoration project is incredibly exciting and technically complex with success dependant on the collaboration of many groups.
These include NPWS teams, local farmers, conservationists and communities, the Norwegian authorities, and partners.
“Their collective efforts over many years have brought us to this point. I’d like to pay tribute to all involved and acknowledge their commitment to making this project a success, now and in the years to come,” he said.
Minister Noonan said he was delighted to see these majestic birds returning to the skylines and becoming an established part of the landscape after an absence of some 100 years.
“I was privileged to release six of these stunning creatures last year in Kerry and I can honestly say that watching them soar through the skies on their first Irish flight is a memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
“I’d like everyone in Ireland to have the opportunity to observe this once-extinct species in its natural habitat,” he said.
Despite the many challenges that remain, Minister Noonan said 2021 will mark the rare success of three Irish-born chicks fledge from a single nest on Lough Derg.
The potential for positive economic benefits from the project was also experienced in Mountshannon, Co. Clare, when the first breeding pair nested within sight of the village in 2012, attracting thousands of visitors in following years.
Last year, when physical tourism was non-existent due to the Covid-19 restrictions, live streaming of a White-tailed eagle nest in Glengarriff, Co Cork, attracted a lot of interest.
It even made it onto the recent BBC list of top 20 virtual nature attractions in the world.
Restoring this lost flagship species to Irish skies will be a significant step in restoring the country’s natural heritage, according to the NPWS, and in so doing will also contribute to tourism, local communities, and human well-being.
It said the re-establishment of breeding white-tailed eagles at sites like Glengarriff and Killarney has proven hugely popular with local residents.
The birds currently held at the four sites in Munster will be satellite tagged before being released to allow the project personnel to monitor their progress and their integration into the existing Irish breeding population.
Sightings from members of the public will also be an important component of the monitoring process.
An important aspect of the programme is co-operation with farmers and landowners in the release areas and where birds settle to breed.
During the first phase of the project, managed by the NPWS and the Golden Eagle Trust, a good relationship was established with farmers even helping to monitor birds and nests at some sites.
Phase II release aims to build on this relationship into the future to ensure that farming and eagles continue to coexist to their mutual benefit.
It also underlines in practical terms Ireland’s commitment to implementing the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.