Reintroduced white-tailed sea eagles flourish in Scotland

Having disappeared in 1916, white-tailed sea eagles were reintroduced to Britain in the 1970s. It took 10 years for a pair to nest but now they are flourishing. Michael McCarthy reports from the Inner Hebrides
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Watching eagles in the wild is like watching legends, like watching Pele play football, or Nureyev and Fonteyn dance. You've heard so much about them, you've built up to the moment so much, and now you can hardly believe that they're there in front of you.

Watching eagles in the wild is like watching legends, like watching Pele play football, or Nureyev and Fonteyn dance. You've heard so much about them, you've built up to the moment so much, and now you can hardly believe that they're there in front of you.

They are wheeling high above their nest in a snapped-off Sitka spruce, the two white-tailed sea eagles, and they are immense. One drifts lower towards the nest, lazily, dreamily. Then with a dip of its shoulder the other is dropping faster towards it with talons extended like an aircraft's landing gear.

The two great birds converge; two sets of talons stretch out; and then they clash in a writhing of wings, and you are shouting out loud, what is it? A fight? But no, it's a greeting, a majestic aerial handshake, and they wheel away skywards again as their two black chicks, six weeks old and already bigger than crows, look quizzically upwards.

The sight of these birds triggers powerful feelings inside us, feelings that must be inherited, and very ancient. It seems to live on in our tissues, the awe which our distant ancestors must have felt for these magnificent killers that were a familiar part of their cold and cruel world, birds which symbolised so much: survival, strength, supremacy, splendour.

They are hardly part of our world today. Is there a bigger distance from a computer screen on a desk than to a wild eagle?

Perhaps that's why the sight is so utterly liberating. They remind us, with an exhilarating shock, that there is more to life than the ways in which we are bound: to commuting, to mortgages, to inescapable routine in air-conditioned offices. Nothing binds an eagle, except fate itself.

They are on Mull, these two, the big craggy Scottish island, and they are part of a remarkable renaissance. The white-tailed sea eagle once nested throughout Britain, from the Isle of Wight to the Shetlands. It was more familiar than the golden eagle and is the bird of many old legends, poems and songs.

But the farmers and landowners of recent centuries did not share the eagle-awe of earlier peoples, and they had firearms. They regarded the bird as a lamb-stealing rival and persecuted it to extinction in most of Britain; it retreated to a last stronghold in the Highlands and Islands.

There it was further persecuted by Victorian collectors, the more so ,the rarer it became, until eventually it succumbed. The last nest was seen in 1916; the last native British sea eagle was shot, on Skye, two years later.

In 1975, however, they began to come back. A reintroduction project saw young birds flown in from northern Norway, where the population remains healthy, and released on the Hebridean island of Rum. Much thought went into the project, and great care, and there were high hopes of a new British breeding population, but they were a long time in being realised.

It was not until fully 10 years had passed, when more than 80 young Norwegian birds had been released and supporters were beginning to despair of success, that a pair nested and raised a chick.

When they did it was not on Rum, but on Mull, nearly 40 miles away. David Sexton saw it happen; he was one of a small team from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds that in 1985 guarded the loch-side nest 24 hours a day until the chick flew. He remembers the agonising wait in a wretched summer, cold and wet, and the eventual "overwhelming joy and relief" when the young bird, the first hatched in Britain for 70 years, finally left the nest.

Twenty years on, Sexton is back on Mull as the RSPB representative on the island, and this time he is not just guarding a sea eagle's nest; he is showing one to the public. The birds are slowly but surely increasing in numbers, with 32 pairs now breeding through the Inner Hebrides from Mull up to Skye, and the days when the location of every eyrie had to be kept a closely guarded secret are passing.

In partnership with other conservation bodies - Scottish Natural Heritage, Forestry Commission Scotland and the Mull and Iona Community Trust - the RSPB is operating a public viewing hide that looks directly on to the nest in the broken Sitka spruce; it is believed to be the only such hide in the world.

You step in. You look out. You find your heartbeat quickening. "The eagles do have a profound effect on people who see them," Sexton said. "It seems to affect people deep in their soul. We had one woman who burst into tears when she saw them. Another couple wrote that it was the best day of their lives. Of course some people just say, lovely, fine, thanks very much, but the majority seem to experience something they will never forget."

The sheer size of the birds, he says, takes people by surprise. White-tailed sea eagles are northern Europe's biggest birds of prey and the larger female has a wingspan of more than eight feet (2.4m), a foot more than the female golden eagle.

Their size is particularly noticeable when they are "buzzed" by buzzards defending their territory. We watched it happen: the attacking buzzard, one of the biggest birds around in southern England, seemed in the binoculars the size of a blackbird, and the eagle contemptuously shrugged it off with a flap of its wing.

The other surprise is their beauty. Although young sea eagles are almost black, the adults are a striking tawny brown on the back, with a pale yellow head and a rounded tale of pure white.

It is fascinating to compare them to golden eagles, an exercise that on Mull, remarkably, you can do without much difficulty. Mull is Britain's "Eagle Island"; it is now not only home to more than half a dozen pairs of sea eagles (the exact figure is confidential); it has a similar number of golden eagle territories.

Having seen the first, we asked a couple who run nature tours of the island to find us the second. Pam and Arthur Brown, retired farmers from Cheshire, started Discover Mull five years ago, and now take a Land Rover full of visitors out every day looking for eagles, otters on the seashore, and the other wildlife in which the island is rich. They found us a golden eagle, a bird soaring along the length of a towering granite cliff above the sea.

It appeared much darker than its cousin, although when it settled the golden feathers on its head, after which it is named, were clearly visible. Its silhouette was different too, more angled and arrowlike, although in majesty, in mastery of flight the birds were the same.

Look upon them and you may tap into parts of your soul you didn't know were there. In a world trashed and flattened into sameness, we should be grateful that they are still soaring in the sky over Mull, proclaiming their difference.

¿ Visits to the Mull sea eagle hide are accompanied and depart from near Tobermory. They must be booked in advance by ringing 01688 302038. More information can be found on the RSPB website at www.rspb.org.uk/birds/brilliant/regions/scotland/whitetailed.asp. Discover Mull can be contacted on 01688 400415, or via www.discovermull.co.uk.

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