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Suffolk coastal sites to be assessed for possible release of white-tailed eagles
Natural England, and the RSPB, assisted by the Forestry Commission, have been looking at the feasibility of re-introducing the white-tailed eagle - also known as the sea eagle - to East Anglia, and the Suffolk coast is being considered as a possible future home for white-tailed eagles
A three-year study of eastern England between the Humber and the Thames has identified the Suffolk coast as offering the best opportunities for enabling the white tailed eagle to re-establish itself in England.
The Suffolk coast is favoured because of its location at the centre of a string of wetland habitats stretching from The Wash to the Thames Estuary, which could provide a suitable home for white-tailed eagles. Elsewhere in Europe, white-tailed eagles thrive in similar lowland wetland habitats.
Natural England’s Chief Scientist, Tom Tew, said: “Our analysis of the Suffolk coast has produced encouraging results in terms of identifying potential sites that could form the base for a future re-introduction. The task now is to ensure an open and informed debate about whether, and how, to move forward.”
Mark Avery, the RSPB’s Director of Conservation, said: “These birds belong to lowland England as surely as they belong to the sea cliffs of Scotland. Man is the reason they are missing and it is for us to put that right.
“It is also why we must do this properly and with regard to people and wildlife nearby. The RSPB want eagles back, but without a return to the conflicts and misunderstandings that led to their extinction.”
The white-tailed eagle’s huge wingspan, shock of white tail feathers and bright-eyed glare were once much more common sights. Once widespread in lowland England, the species was persecuted to extinction by the early 19th century. By the early 20th century, they were also extinct in Scotland.
The bird has now been successfully re-established on the west coast of Scotland after two earlier releases, and a third series of releases is underway in eastern Scotland.
Birds could take decades if not centuries to spread from Scotland without assistance and a Suffolk release program presents the best prospects of enabling the bird to re-colonise parts of England. Re-introduction could also be expected to deliver significant economic benefits for tourism and related businesses as has been the case in Scotland.
Tom Tew added: “Previous surveys have shown that the vast majority of the public strongly support the idea of the re-introduction of white tailed sea eagles to East Anglia, but we recognise that there are some people who are opposed and others who wish to understand more about how a re-introduction program would affect them. It is important we continue to gauge views and address concerns – a project of this type has to be right for the area as well as for the ecological needs of the birds themselves.”
In addition to conducting feasibility studies about suitable sites, the re-introduction project is looking to canvas the views of local landowners, livestock farmers, conservation organisations, experts and the general public. Over the next few weeks, a series of local opinion surveys will be conducted in Suffolk to gauge initial local reactions in advance of more extended dialogues with landowners and other stakeholders that will continue throughout the rest of 2009.
Notes to editors:
1. Archaeological, place name and literary evidence suggest that the white-tailed eagle was once widespread in lowland England, but was persecuted to extinction by the early 19th century. By the early 20th century, they were also extinct in Scotland. Since 1975, they have been re-introduced into western Scotland, by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), in association with the RSPB. This year there were 46 occupied territories, with 36 young fledged. Persecution, including egg collecting and deliberate killing, remains a serious threat to their recovery, since the rate of population growth is naturally slow. To enable re-colonisation of other suitable coastal habitat, a new re-introduction project began in eastern Scotland in 2007.
2. White-tailed eagles are the fourth largest eagle in the world and the UK’s largest bird of prey. They are scavengers and generalist predators who feed on fish, birds and medium-sized mammals such as rabbits.
3. The white-tailed eagle is listed on Schedule 9 of the Wildlife & Countryside which means that a licence is required to release the birds into the wild. Natural England is the licensing authority for such licences in England. Natural England’s licensing role for re-introductions is delivered on behalf of Defra, under a formal agreement which requires them to set out the policy within which we operate.
4. Because of concerns over the potential that bitterns might be predated, the WTE project began to look beyond Suffolk while further research on the potential threat to bitterns was researched. Following detailed consultation with experts across Europe where the two species coexist, and having undertaken a comprehensive literature search of WTE diet, the project partners are confident that any risk presented to bitterns will be minimal, and have therefore decided it is appropriate to bring the feasibility study back to Suffolk. In accordance with European law, no releases will occur until an Appropriate Assessment has been carried out with satisfactory conclusions.
5. The white-tailed eagles released on the Isle of Mull in Scotland have proved a major tourist draw for the island. The Island receives around 350,000 visitors every year, of whom two-thirds spend their holidays in Mull and 33 per cent are day-trippers. In total, visitors spend £38 million on the island every year. Of this, between £1.4-1.6 million per year is attracted by the presence of sea eagles.
6. Natural England works for people, places and nature to conserve and enhance biodiversity, landscapes and wildlife in rural, urban, coastal and marine areas. It conserves and enhances the natural environment for its intrinsic value, the wellbeing and enjoyment of people, and the economic prosperity it brings. www.naturalengland.org.uk/
7. The RSPB speaks out for birds and wildlife, tackling the problems that threaten our environment. Nature is amazing - help us keep it that way. Click here to join today. www.rspb.org.uk/join
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