It would be the first such happening in well over a century and would be a significant milestone for an exciting project to reintroduce the bird.
These sea eagles became extinct here in 1910 because of persecution by humans — through shooting, poisoning and stealing eggs from nests — but 100 birds have been released over the past 10 years as part of a National Parks and Wildlife Service reintroduction project. Thirty-three birds have died, with poisoning responsible for 40% of the deaths.
When the project was mooted amid some opposition in 2007, all sorts of scares were raised. There were claims, for instance, the eagles would prey on young lambs. That has not happened. Eagles are now breeding in sheep-farming areas and have become an accepted part of the environment.
Ireland does not have a good record regarding birds of prey of which we have fewer than any other European country, except Luxembourg. Many such birds were persecuted to extinction here but, in a more enlightened era, the red kite, common buzzard and golden and white-tailed eagles are being brought back.
Project manager Allan Mee had an overflow attendance when he delivered an update on the white-tailed eagles during the autumn talks series in Killarney National Park. “Local community participation is key to the changed mindset to eagle conservation and this support is most encouraging,” he said.
All 100 eagles released in the Killarney wilderness were sourced in Norway, which boasts a coastal population of 3,000 pairs. Satellite-tracking shows they travel far and wide. One, for example, goes to Mayo for the summer, but returns to Kerry for the winter.
Another flew to the Giant’s Causeway, Co Antrim, but died from poisoning after three years. Yet another went to the Orkney Islands, in Scotland, but came back to Killarney after eight months. The oldest female is now in Scotland which has a healthy eagle population, now a tourist attraction worth an estimated £5m per year to the isle of Mull.
The first successful breeding by birds reintroduced here was in Lough Derg, near Mountshannon, Co Clare, in 2013, and the nest has become a magnet for visitors – from a distance, of course. A chick fledged in Glengarriff, West Cork, in 2016.
This year, 10 pairs bred in different areas and 21 chicks were fledged. As they start to breed at around five years of age, Dr Mee believes there’s a serious chance a white-tailed eagle born here will produce young next year. “That would be a real breakthrough,” he said.
There have been no eagle poisonings since April 2015. Another hopeful sign things are changing for the better, perhaps!