SCOTLAND’s eagle population was at its height 1,500 years ago when the Scots first left Ireland to forge the kingdom of Dalriada in Argyll, according to new research to be published today.
But human persecution and the gradual loss of the raptors’ natural habitat brought eagles to the brink of extinction, a wide-reaching study by researchers at RSPB Scotland has shown.
The dramatic decline in the numbers of the golden and White-tailed Eagles has been charted for the first time through 1,500 years.
The researchers have detailed the rise and fall of the estimated populations of both birds of prey across Britain and Ireland – revealing the devastating impact of human persecution and habitat destruction. They delved into the history of the eagles’ populations by analysing ancient place names, historic records and modern knowledge of the species’ ecology.
During the study, the researchers identified a total of 556 place names which suggested a link with the presence of eagles, including the words “Iolair and Fhirr-eoin”, which means eagle in Scottish Gaelic.
A total of 276 place names were linked to eagles in Scottish Gaelic and another 66 in Scots. The researchers have estimated that in 500 AD there were between 1,000 and 1,500 pairs of Golden Eagles across Britain and Ireland and between 800 and 1,400 pairs of Sea Eagles.
The research, published in the latest edition of the journal Bird Study, reveals that both White-tailed and Golden Eagles were once found across large tracts of lowland and upland Britain and Ireland, but that populations plummeted as a result of human activity.
Richard Evans, of RSPB Scotland and lead author of the study, said: “The results of this study are striking as they provide compelling evidence that eagles were widespread throughout most of Britain and Ireland in the Dark Ages. Between 500 and 1800 we see massive loss of eagle range in the south, which is consistent with the effects of habitat loss and killing by humans, rather than the influence of climate change on habitat, or competitive exclusion, as some have suggested.
“This trend continued in the years up to the First World War, until the only eagles left in all of Britain and Ireland were Golden Eagles in the highest hills and deer forests of Scotland. Recovery of Golden Eagles since this low point has now stalled, while limited recovery of White-tailed Eagles has only been possible by reintroduction.”
RSPB Scotland head of species and land management Duncan Orr-Ewing said: “The results of this study will help to inform current and future eagle recovery programmes in the UK by improving our understanding of where these species should naturally occur in our landscapes.”