In the United Kingdom, seeing eagles in the wild remains a rare treat unless you live on or visit the Isle of Mull, the Isle of Wight, the Scottish Highlands, or one of the other regions where conservation efforts are underway.
Eagles have always fascinated people. They symbolize freedom and strength and remind us of the delicate balance of nature and the impact of human actions on our environment. The story of eagles in the UK is a sad one, but also one of resilience and resurgence.
White-tailed and golden eagles tell a story of (mostly) successful reintroduction – but that story only has to be told because both species once were either fully or partially extinct in the UK.
In this article, we’ll look at these birds’ unique characteristics, conservation efforts, and challenges the white-tailed and golden eagles face today. Both of these species are monogamous and often, but not always, mate for life.
So, let’s take a closer look at both eagle species in the UK.
1. White-tailed Eagles (also known as Sea Eagles)
- Scientific Name: Haliaeetus albicilla
- Life Span: Up to 25 years in the wild
- Size: They typically have a length of 2.5 to 3 feet (75-90 cm)
- Weight: Between 4 to 6.7 kg (8.8 to 14.8 pounds)
- Wingspan: Approximately 6.4 to 8.2 feet (195-250 cm)
- Population (UK): About 150 breeding pairs
- Status: They are included on the Red List of UK birds of conservation concern. White-tailed eagles are strictly protected under Schedules 1, 1A, and A1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004.
1.1 What They Look Like and What They Eat
Juvenile white-tailed eagles have black-brown plumage with a dark head, bill, eyes, and tail. They gradually develop the adult plumage over several years. As adults, they have brown body plumage with a pale head and neck, which can be almost white in older birds. Their tails are white with a distinctive wedge shape.
They have striking, hooked yellow beaks, golden eyes, and yellow legs and talons.
White-tailed eagles are often seen soaring high above coastal areas, inland lakes, and rivers. That’s because fish are their favorite food, so it makes sense for them to be close to bodies of water. If they’re not lucky with their hunt for fish, they also eat other birds and smaller mammals.
1.2 Hunted to Extinction
Before the 20th century, white-tailed eagles weren’t uncommon in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. There were hundreds of breeding pairs in the UK, but as is sadly the case with many species, these majestic birds fell victim to human hunters. Humans persecuted them for centuries until they had been driven to extinction in the UK by the early 20th century:
- The last known white-tailed eagle to breed in England was shot in 1832.
- The last known breeding pair in Scotland was shot in 1916.
- The last white-tailed eagle in the UK was shot in Shetland in 1918.
1.3 Reintroduction and Conservation Efforts
In 1975, a reintroduction program was launched to bring white-tailed eagles back to the UK. Chicks from Norway were released on the island of Rum (Scotland), and the first chicks fledged between 1975 and 1985. While the reintroduction was a success, there are still many challenges.
The first is that white-tailed eagles only start breeding when they are five years old; that’s when they reach maturity (much later than other birds). This means a male and a female must survive until they are old enough, then find each other and have a successful breeding season (which isn’t guaranteed with these birds).
Much can go wrong in five years, especially when birds fly over hunting estates or grouse moors. Some hunters, especially on grouse moors, aren’t keen on any bird of prey. So they shoot or poison them even though it’s illegal. It’s not uncommon for a bird with a GPS tracker to mysteriously disappear when flying over a hunting estate.
When a bird dies of natural causes, the tracker usually leads people to its location, and researchers can figure out what happened to the bird. But when a bird disappears over a hunting estate, neither bird nor tracker are ever found again.
In addition to human predators, white-tailed eagles must also cope with habitat loss and fragmentation. Collision with power lines is also an issue for these big birds of prey. It also doesn’t help that their breeding success isn’t very high.
Fortunately, organizations like the RSPB, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Forestry England, and the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation (Isle of Wight, England) put much effort into white-tailed eagle conservation efforts. They work to protect and restore habitats, educate the public to raise awareness and monitor and protect known nesting sites.
Initially, the main conservation efforts happened in Scotland, with the main populations of white-tailed eagles on the Isle of Mull, the Isle of Skye, and the Northwest Highlands. Today, these eagles attract many tourists each year and make millions of pounds for Scotland.
The additional income from tourism was a nice lure, in addition to concerns about conservation. So England also wanted to have these beautiful birds back and do its part for the birds’ conservation. It wasn’t until 2019, though, that six white-tailed eagles from Scotland were taken to the Isle of Wight in England.
From 2019 to 2023, new white-tailed eagles were released on the Isle of White each year to re-establish the species in England. In 2024, the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation will hopefully see the first successful breeding season of the birds that were released in 2019 and survived until maturity.
To keep up to date with the current conservation efforts, visit:
2. Golden Eagle
- Scientific Name: Aquila chrysaetos
- Life Span: Golden eagles can live for 20-30 years in the wild
- Size: Typically 2.2 to 2.8 feet (66-86 cm)
- Weight: Between 3 to 6.7 kg (6.6 to 14.8 pounds).
- Wingspan: Their wingspan ranges from approximately 6 to 7.5 feet (180-230 cm)
- Population (UK): About 500 breeding pairs
- Status: The golden eagle is native to Scotland and is protected under wildlife conservation laws. Its UK conservation status is green (no serious concerns).
2.1 What They Look Like and What They Eat
Golden eagles are a little smaller than white-tailed eagles. Juvenile golden eagles have mainly dark brown plumage with white patches on the wings and the tail base. The nape is not as golden as in adults, and their eyes are darker.
Their plumage gradually changes to adult colors as they grow older, with dark brown feathers covering most of their body. They have a distinctive golden or reddish-brown nape, which gives them their name. Their eyes are a piercing yellow that tells you, “Don’t mess with me.”
Unlike the white-tailed eagle, a golden eagle prefers birds and mammals to fish. You’ll see them fishing occasionally, but it isn’t their preferred meal. They also won’t say no to some carrion.
2.2 Partial Extinction, Reintroduction, and Conservation Efforts
Unlike the white-tailed eagle, the golden eagle didn’t completely disappear from the UK. Thanks to habitat loss, persecution by humans, and the use of pesticides, they totally disappeared from England and Wales, and their numbers in Scotland drastically declined during the early 20th century.
In Scotland, golden eagles only survived in some remote and rugged parts of Scotland – mainly in parts of the Scottish Highlands that weren’t full of humans. The small number that survived carried the future of these birds of prey on their strong shoulders.
Captive birds were used to breed more golden eagles, which were eventually released into parts of Scotland. This was a success as golden eagles now thrive in the Scottish Highlands and naturally keep expanding their range and population.
It didn’t go so well in England.
2.3 Bad News for England’s Last Golden Eagle – What Does the Future Hold?
Golden eagles only returned to England in 1969 and didn’t do so well in that part of the UK. In 2016, England’s last golden eagle went missing, never to be seen again. The eagle lost his mate in 2004 and has been living on his own ever since, even though he was very keen on finding a new mate.
He built a new nest each spring to try and attract a new mate (which is difficult if there are no female golden eagles around). But when the bird did not return to his nesting site in 2016, everyone feared the worst, especially because the bird was already close to 20 years old – so it’s possible he died of natural causes.
From 2016 to 2021, there were no golden eagles in England until a brave golden eagle originally living in Southern Scotland decided to visit England for a bit. She returned to Scotland, but her visit has sparked hope that golden eagles will one day decide to return to England on their own.
2.4 The Future of Golden Eagles in Scotland
A 2017 report (Satellite tag review reveals Scotland’s golden eagles are dying in suspicious circumstances on grouse moors) revealed that a large number of satellite-tagged golden eagles disappeared in the Monadhliath mountains (Scottish Highlands).
Over a period of 12 years, a third of all young golden eagles in that mountain range have disappeared (probably died) under suspicious circumstances. The report states that this is connected to simultaneous records of illegal persecution of golden eagles.
This remains a problem. Certain groups are not fans of golden eagles (and any other big birds of prey). They will keep poisoning and shooting them, ensuring they destroy all evidence. They make sure that the satellite tags and the birds’ bodies are never found. Of course, it is important to add that not all grouse moors and hunting estates in the UK poison and shoot birds of prey.
While conservation projects like the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project (SOSGEP) are successful, these disappearances are concerning. Fortunately, the golden eagle population in Scotland is currently fairly healthy, and it looks like the future of these big birds is comparably bright.
To keep up to date with the current conservation efforts for golden eagles, visit:
In the UK, eagles are still not completely safe, thanks to persecution and habitat loss. You’ve learned that white-tailed eagles, who were once extinct in the UK, have successfully been reintroduced thanks to organizations like the RSPB and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Golden eagles also faced extinction but have recovered nicely, at least in Scotland, thanks to reintroduction programs. While their return to England is still uncertain, there’s hope they may return.
Challenges like illegal persecution on grouse moors and hunting estates are a serious problem. Suppose you want to help the conservation of white-tailed and golden eagles in the UK. In that case, you can support wildlife organizations, raise awareness, report suspicious activities to the police, and advocate for the eagles’ protection.