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Facts about the

Golden Eagle

Scientific name: Aquila chrysaetos

Bird Family: Kites, hawks and eagles

UK conservation status: Green

Key facts:

  • Large birds, Golden Eagles can reach speeds of 240kmh when diving on prey.
  • Once widespread British resident now confined to Scotland.
  • Heavily persecuted on grouse moors, the last breeding in England was in the 1980s.


A little smaller than the White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) , the Golden Eagle is a powerful bird of prey with a world range that takes in Europe, northern Africa, Asia, and western North America from Alaska to Mexico. Largely hunting mammals like hares and birds the size of a grouse by flying low and striking with their talons in a brief rush or swift pounce, Golden Eagles also regularly dive (or stoop) on prey from height when it’s been reported that they can reach speeds of up to 240kmh/150mph.

While Golden Eagles in the UK are largely restricted to a handful of mountain ranges and offshore islands in the west of Scotland, globally they occupy a wide range of habitats. Providing there is open country and nesting sites Golden Eagles can feed and breed quite happily. In North America for example, they are found primarily in mountains up to 12,000 feet, canyonlands, rimrock terrain, and riverside cliffs and bluffs.

Why do ‘our’ birds seem so fussy, then?

The answer is not that Britain’s Golden Eagles are choosing these remote sites, but that these are the only sites that they’ve been allowed to remain in. Like so many of our birds of prey, Golden Eagles were once widespread but have been shot, trapped, and poisoned out of much of their former range. The species was finally extirpated from England and Wales by 1850, and from Ireland by 1912. Admired and celebrated as an essential element of native Scottish wildlife, recovery even there has been hindered by ongoing persecution and the surviving population also suffered a sharp decline in breeding success in the 1960s due to DDT which caused thinned eggshells and mass infertility.

On a positive note, there are now more than 500 breeding pairs of Golden Eagles in the UK, and the species returned to the Orkneys in 2021 after a forty year absence.

 

However, many former territories remain unoccupied. A report from 2016 stated that eight satellite-tagged Golden Eagles disappeared in an area of the Monadhliath mountains known for raptor persecution and grouse estates, and the RSPB (which typically shies away from direct accusations) states on its website that, “A number of lines of evidence indicated that illegal persecution of eagles, principally associated with grouse moor management in the central and eastern Highlands, is the most severe constraint on Scottish golden eagles. The highest national priority for the conservation and management of golden eagles in Scotland is to tackle persecution in those areas where it still persists.”

Will we ever see breeding Golden Eagles in England again?

 

There is certainly room for them but away from the remote uplands perhaps not the prey availability. Golden Eagles arrived in the Lake District from Scotland in the late 1950s and a pair first bred at Haweswater in 1969. Between 1970 and 1996 they produced sixteen young while a second pair fledged four chicks between 1975 and 1983. They failed to establish a viable population though – lack of food in a heavily farmed landscape seems the likeliest reason. A single male was resident at Riggindale near Haweswater from 2001 until 2016 when it was last seen and was presumed to have died of old age.

As birder Alan Tilmouth profoundly remarked at the time, “We’ll wake tomorrow to a country less wild than before, nature one step further from us, one step closer to simply being a shadow of itself.

The same could be said for any country where birds of prey still suffer persecution at the hands of the shooting industry, and where nature is indeed one step further from us because of the Victorian attitudes of some land managers.

As we say repeatedly on this site, the shooting industry should have no say whatsoever in how many birds of prey there are in the UK. The government here has pledged to halt biodiversity decline by 2030. A key test of whether we can live sustainably in 21st century Britain will be whether we can coexist in harmony with birds of prey such as Golden Eagles. For the vast majority of us the answer will be, ‘Of course we can’.

How will we end the shooting industry?