A sea eagle glides over the sea

The white-tailed sea eagle was driven to extinction in mainland England by hunting.  Image © Shutterstock/Mark Caunt

Read later


During Beta testing articles may only be saved for seven days.

Eagle reintroduction project cancelled despite widespread public support

The white-tailed sea eagle will not be reintroduced to Norfolk despite fully fledged plans and public support. 

Conservationists had hoped to bring back the bird of prey, driven to extinction in the UK over 200 years ago, as part of plans to restore biodiversity in the nation. 

A project to reintroduce a species of eagle to mainland England has been abandoned for the second time after landowners allegedly objected. 

Plans to release 60 white-tailed sea eagles to Wild Ken Hill in Norfolk were set to begin in 2022, but have now been called off. The Guardian has reported that this was due to objections by some local landowners concerned that the eagles could prey upon their livestock. 

The cancellation of the project is reminiscent of earlier attempts just over a decade ago, when plans to reintroduce the birds to the same site were called off in 2009 following the previous year's financial crisis. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for Wild Ken Hill said, 'We have reluctantly decided that we will not reintroduce white-tailed eagles at Wild Ken Hill in 2022 as planned. 

'We continue to believe that the restoration of white-tailed eagles to eastern England is an important and inevitable conservation goal, and also that the original plans for a release beginning in 2022 could have been delivered very successfully in partnership with the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation.' 

The organisation intends to focus instead on work to develop more sustainable farming practices, adding that they hope the eagles will disperse into the area from a small population introduced on the Isle of Wight in 2019. 

Trees and the rolling slope of Ken Hill

The eagles were to be reintroduced to Ken Hill in Norfolk. Image © Hugh Venables, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Geograph.

Driven to extinction 

The white-tailed sea eagle is a bird of prey that feeds on a range of animals, including fish, small mammals and other birds. It hunts these animals over large areas of land and water, nesting in trees and on cliffs. 

Its adaptability to a range of environments means it has a large range spanning from the Kamchatka peninsula in the far east of Russia to the western coast of Greenland.  

In the UK, however, the bird was driven to extinction in the early 1800s, with the last known pair in England nesting on the Isle of Wight in the 1780s. This was largely due to humans hunting the eagles' prey as well as the killing of the birds themselves to protect livestock. 

The sea eagles were reintroduced into Scotland in 1975 and now number around 140 breeding pairs, with legal protection from being persecuted. The success of this project led to efforts to reintroduce the birds into England, with 13 birds released on the Isle of Wight between 2019 and 2020. 

Conservationists had hoped to expand the reintroduction to another former home of the white-tailed sea eagle in Norfolk. Plans were for 60 birds to be transported from Poland, where there are over 1200 breeding pairs. 

The plans were developed between Wild Ken Hill and the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, with the support of Natural England. The two groups claim that a six-month public consultation received support from 91% of respondents. 

However, in a repeat of concerns in the eighteenth century, the plans have now apparently been killed off amid claims landowners objected due to the potential impact on farms and shooting estates. 

An eagle catches a fish from water

The eagles prey on a range of animals, including fish, as well as scavenging remains left by other predators. Image © Shutterstock / Andrew Astbury

Predator predicament 

Concerns about the reintroduction of predators are common when discussions are had with landowners. For instance, the National Sheep Association has objected to plans by the Lynx UK Trust to reintroduce the wild cats into a forest in Northumberland. 

The white-tailed sea eagle is no exception. Given its generalist diet, there are concerns that they might prey on juvenile livestock such as lambs and piglets.  

In the consultation, farmers and those involved with shooting estates were most against the proposals to reintroduce the sea eagle, with 21.8% and 23.8% of each respective group strongly opposing the proposals. These were, however, dwarfed by over 50% of respondents from each group who were strongly in favour. 

The concerns that the eagle could have on livestock are not without foundation. There are sporadic reports of eagles carrying off lambs from farms in Scotland, and a 2009 study found that almost 20% of their diet is from sheep. 

However, previous research by the same authors found that most of the sheep in their diet is scavenged from animals that are already dead and have been killed by other predators such as foxes. 

In any event, the plans have now been put on hold while those behind the plans assess their options.  

A spokesperson for the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation says, 'We are very disappointed that Wild Ken Hill do not wish to proceed with the white-tailed eagle reintroduction project that Natural England licenced earlier this year.  

'The early results from the Isle of Wight project are extremely encouraging, and we continue to believe that East Anglia is highly suitable for the second stage of the restoration of the White-tailed Eagle in England, as detailed in the Ken Hill feasibility report.   

'As such, we are now seeking an alternative location, and are in consultation with Natural England about this. We hope to report more news in due course.'