Victorian Persecution

The Demise of the White-Tailed Eagle in Scotland

From Hero to Zero

Once widespread in their distribution across the UK, the fortunes of the White-tailed Eagle took a turn for the worse as the landscape and attitudes of an increasing human population changed in the 19th century. By 1800, the White-tailed Eagle had been forced north and west and Scotland remained its last refuge. Yet, it was to be no safe haven, as shooting estates wanted all birds of prey destroyed and White-tailed Eagles were labelled as livestock killers in the wake of the notorious Highland Clearances of the time. Land was cleared of tenant farmers to make way for sheep, placing a bounty on the head of White-tailed Eagles, which were now regarded as vermin.

During Victorian times, hundreds of White-tailed Eagles were either poisoned or shot, with collectors treasuring the thought of a stuffed bird or eggs as trophies.

Once revered for their strength and power, the White-tailed Eagle had become demonised, with the last breeding pair in the UK finally succumbing to egg collecting on the Isle of Skye in 1916. The last lonely individual, a rare albino, disappeared from Shetland two years later and the demise of this awesome bird was complete. It is likely that birds persisted on the Isle of Mull (as in other parts of Argyll) at least until the 1890’s, while a pair may have bred on the nearby Ardnamurchan peninsula as late as 1913.

White-tailed Eagle Egg

Big Brother Is Watching You!

Some bad habits from the past have ‘stolen’ their way in to the 21st century, with White-tailed Eagles on the Isle of Mull remaining the potential target of egg thieves. Thankfully, the (in)discriminate poisoning of birds of prey that still occurs elsewhere in Scotland is not a concern on the island, but the Mull Eagle Watch team can never be complacent. The expanding population of White-tailed Eagles on the Isle of Mull are well-protected by a task force of organisations, as well as an army of volunteers from the general public.

Nowadays, potential threats to the continued well-being of Mull’s eagles stem from the carelessness of birdwatchers and photographers who, inadvertently, disturb birds in the vicinity of their nests, all for the sake of a closer view or a better photograph. During the early stages of the breeding season, when eagles are most vulnerable to disturbance, the eyes of the Eagle Watch community are watching the every move of anyone who is somewhere that they shouldn’t be!

Photo courtesy of Ewan Miles

The White-tailed Eagle is afforded maximum protection as a breeding species by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as amended by the Nature Conservation Act (Scotland) 2004. As a Schedule 1 species, it is an offence for anyone to disturb, knowingly or otherwise, these birds in the vicinity of their nest. Anyone found guilty of doing so faces the threat of a custodial sentence under Scottish law.