An adult white-tailed eagle in Norway, showing characteristic long, broad, fingered wings, heavy bill and short wedge-shaped tail.

An adult white-tailed eagle in Norway, showing characteristic long, broad, fingered wings, heavy bill and short wedge-shaped tail. Image: Yathin S Krishnappa via Wiki Commons.

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White-tailed eagles could return to England

Plans are afoot to reintroduce white-tailed eagles to the Isle of Wight, 230 years after they were declared extinct in England.

White-tailed eagles haven't been seen flying over English skies since 1780, and they were extinct in Scotland for a large part of the twentieth century.

Blame for their extinction can be laid at the door of humanity. The birds have been persecuted since the Middle Ages as it was thought they posed a large threat to lambs and sheep, so hunting continued relentlessly until none were left.

Before they came into conflict with humans, the birds had been thriving all over the UK for thousands of years.

White-tailed eagles were recently successfully reintroduced in Scotland, and now Natural England hopes they'll return further south, too.

A licence was granted to the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation and Forestry England to begin a reintroduction on the Isle of Wight.

With a wingspan measuring 2.4 metres, the white-tailed eagle is the largest bird of prey in the UK.

Dr Alex Bond, Senior Curator in Charge of Birds at the Museum, says, 'I'm really excited about the prospect of having these eagles back on the Isle of Wight.

'Reintroducing white-tailed eagles has been done before in Scotland, so we have a pretty good idea of how to do it successfully now.

'It has been fantastic to follow the project to get a healthy population back in Scotland. The mark of success in this project will be whether the birds start returning to breed in the area. That's what I would really be hoping to see.'

Why the Isle of Wight?

White-tailed eagles once flourished across the south coast, and many large swathes of the country are still suitable for them to live.

The Isle of Wight was chosen for a number of reasons. It has plenty of food for the birds, including carrion, fish and rabbits. It will also hopefully serve as a good spot for the animals to eventually disperse further along the coast.

The Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation said in a statement, 'Many parts of southern England are capable of supporting breeding and wintering white-tailed eagles, but the Isle of Wight was considered the most suitable location for the reintroduction.

'It is the last known breeding site of the species in southern England, is located close to highly suitable foraging areas in the Solent and surrounding estuaries, and has numerous potential nesting sites in woods and cliffs, and quiet areas for immature birds.'

Scottish white-tailed eagles

Reintroductions of white-tailed eagles were first attempted in Scotland in the 1950s and 1960s, but they failed.

A second try in the 1970s and 1980s was successful, and now there are about 130 breeding pairs.

These birds will be used to colonise the Isle of Wight. Juvenile animals will be collected under licence from nests in Scotland and translocated south. They will be held in a quiet place for three or four weeks before being released, and food will be provided nearby.

The Natural England licence permits the release of the birds on the Isle of Wight over a five-year period, and the first release is planned for summer 2019.

It is hoped that the reintroduction can be used as a flagship species, to highlight the need for conservation in Britain's wild spaces.

The released birds will be tracked using satellite tags, colour rings and radio transmitters, so conservation groups and scientists can keep an eye on their progress.

The Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation adds, 'The white-tailed eagle is a flagship species for wetland and coastal conservation.

'Restoring a population of these spectacular birds to the Isle of Wight and surrounding area will raise the profile of conservation among the general public, and help to highlight important conservation issues affecting wetland, estuarine and coastal habitats and the species they support.'

A spokesperson for Natural England says, 'White-tailed eagles became extinct as a breeding species in England in the eighteenth century.  Releases over the past 40 years have successfully re-established breeding populations in Scotland and Ireland.

'Bringing back lost species in a well-planned and supported way not only helps wildlife populations recover, but can also help more people connect with nature and open up new business opportunities.'