Sea eagle is back from the dead

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When the Victorians slaughtered Britain's biggest eagle, the white-tailed sea eagle, to extinction in these islands in the 19th century, no one thought the bird would ever return. But in the most remarkable conservation success story in British history, about 20 pairs have established territories on the west coast of Scotland, and this year reared their 100th native-born sea eaglet.

When the Victorians slaughtered Britain's biggest eagle, the white-tailed sea eagle, to extinction in these islands in the 19th century, no one thought the bird would ever return. But in the most remarkable conservation success story in British history, about 20 pairs have established territories on the west coast of Scotland, and this year reared their 100th native-born sea eaglet.

The men behind the project celebrated on the Isle of Skye last week the 25th anniversary of their first attempt to reintroduce the sea eagle, known because of its 8ft wingspan as the "flying barn door".

Meanwhile, first news leaked to The Independent on Sunday of another historic eagle conservation project. The golden eagle - the sea eagle's smaller but better-known cousin - became extinct in Ireland in the 19th century. But next summer 12 golden eagle chicks will be discreetly removed from nests in the Scottish Highlands to be flown to the Irish Republic's Glenveagh National Park.

There they will be met by Lorchan O'Toole, who conceived the idea of returning the bird to his native Ireland while reintroducing long-extinct red kites to Scotland for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. His experiences with the kites and watching his colleagues protect the returning sea eagles inspired him to approach the Irish government for millennium funding for the golden eagle project.

The scale of the success with the sea eagle will give him hope for his own venture. Fishermen on boats coming into the Skye's Portree harbour now keep a lookout for pairs of sea eagles divebombing fish in The Minch and attract them by throwing discarded langoustines.

In 1975 John Love, a young Nature Conservancy Council (now Scottish Natural Heritage) officer, received four eight-week-old sea eagle chicks, the first sea eagles in Britain for nearly a century. They had been taken from nests in northern Norway, the bird's last European redoubt, then flown by the RAF to Kinloss, near Inverness, and taken on to the Hebridean island of Rum. There Mr Love named them after Viking gods and goddesses: Odin for the lone male, and Loki, Freya and Karla. Odin soon died, but the females became the original mothers of the reincarnated Scottish population.

Over the next 10 years Mr Love's three goddesses were joined by another 79 chicks, all released on Rum before they spread out to other parts of the Western Highlands and Islands. Mr Love, known to conservationists as Mr Sea Eagle, was the principal guest of honour at last week's 25th anniversary celebration in Portree.

"With 10 to 12 chicks being raised in various parts of the Highlands each year, the Scottish sea eagle is now self-sustaining," he said. "It has truly returned. It is a tremendous thrill after a lapse of so much time to see their white tails gleaming in the sun, soaring among the cliffs that were once home - and that have remained their birthright."

The sea eagle - the world's fourth largest eagle - is now strictly protected, unlike in the days when the Marquis of Bute made his gamekeepers swear an oath to "use their best endeavours to destroy all Birds of Prey, etc, with their nests, etc ... So Help Me God".

Sea eagles mate for life and during courtship perform spectacular feats, such as cartwheeling hundreds of feet through the air. Next summer, visitors will be able to watch sea eagle pairs rearing their young at two known nest sites, one on a cliff near Portree via a video camera, and another in a forest near Loch Frisa on the Isle of Mull from a specially constructed hide.

A spokesman for Scottish Natural Heritage said: "We may one day see this magnificent bird throughout much of its former range in Britain."

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