Errant eagle defies breeder in helicopter chase: Elisabeth Dunn reports on an abortive attempt to recapture a fugitive bird of prey in the hills of Dorset

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LOW over a hillside in west Dorset, a Gazelle army helicopter chases a bird of prey. Graham Dangerfield, television presenter and rare bird breeder, is in pursuit of his Asian golden eagle.

UR 03000 may have a less catchy name than Goldie, the fugitive eagle from London Zoo which preyed on Yorkshire terriers in Regents Park in 1965, but he has a vastly superior escape record. He has been free for 14 months.

Last week, the Department of the Environment granted Mr Dangerfield a licence to catch UR 03000 'by means of a lure, manually operated bow trap, cage trap or helicopter . . .' The granting of the licence has alarmed both the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the RSPCA. 'It appears to me extremely dangerous from the bird's point of view,' an RSPCA wildlife inspector said yesterday. 'If the bird has been flying free and having absolutely no problems in living off natural food, what's the point in trying to catch it?'

UR 03000 (his registration number with the DoE) escaped from Mr Dangerfield's menagerie, Bowers Heath, near Harpenden, Hertfordshire, during a thunderstorm in April last year. Mr Dangerfield tracked the 25-year old bird locally for nine months trying to catch him with baited traps.

In January, at the start of the mating season, UR 03000 performed a soaring courtship flight in an orange dawn and vanished.

Three months later, an amateur ornithologist, Ronnie Baker, of Eype, near Bridport, Dorset, spotted the unusual visitor. Mr Baker was, and remains, unconvinced that the Dorset bird is indeed UR 03000 and not a native golden eagle from the Lake District. The only way to establish the bird's identity is to match its blood sample with DNA records kept by the DoE.

Mr Baker reported the bird to the DoE and swore them to secrecy over its location. But in the closed world of bird of prey fanciers, Mr Dangerfield got wind of rumours. 'I'd know him anywhere. Ronnie Baker is busy telling the world that I'm catching it to make money. That bird isn't worth a penny because he isn't ringed . . . The fact is that without that bird my 23-year breeding programme is dead.

'We've had six successful hatchings and they're all female. It is actually illegal to release a non- native species but most important, while the bird is free, it's in serious danger from a loony with a gun.'

The DoE granted the licence on the grounds that earlier attempts to catch UR 03000 had failed and that the helicopter technique had been used before with success.

Mr Dangerfield sought help from the army flying training establishment at Middle Wallop, in Hampshire. Thus, last Friday morning, a Gazelle with an army pilot set out for Dorset to search for the eagle.

Jack Spooncer, a former design engineer for Westland, photographed the hunt: 'They were only with the eagle for about 15 minutes,' he said. 'The bird would fly under the chopper then, as the helicopter flew lower, it flew higher and when the helicopter gained height, it dropped down again. A smaller bird might have been drawn into the vortex but this one had a seven- foot wingspan and it didn't seem to me as if he had any problems.'

Ronnie Baker was also watching. 'They were pursuing that bird from tree-top to tree-top,' he said. 'It was horrendous. Can you imagine the stress it was under?'

Mr Dangerfield responded: 'Fifteen minutes after the helicopter left we saw the bird kill. That's how stressed it was.'

Graham Dangerfield returned to Harpenden to consider fresh tactics; Ronnie Baker returned to Eype to write to his MP; and UR 03000 returned to the skies. He was last seen catching a rabbit.

(Photograph omitted)