Golden Eagle. Credit: Ewan Miles (www.naturescotland.com)

The Return of England’s Golden Eagles

Matt Mills

It was watching a buzzard float effortlessly overhead that sparked me breaking, what had been an awed, silence between my sister and I, as we stared and strolled, chins high and necks aching, tripping over a minefield of frozen molehills as we strained to keep sight of the magnificent and unmistakable silhouette

“One day, there will be golden eagles in this valley.” I delivered my statement with so much fervour that she seemed to think I was unveiling a secret and grand plan of reintroduction. 

“Really?!” Her eyes widened with genuine delight. “When? And how do you know?”

I paused, unprepared for immediate interrogation about my prophecy. You’d better back that up… I said internally, as she continued to beam at me expectantly.

In answer to her first question, I said. “Hmm… within 30 years. By the time you’re 44. Definitely in my lifetime.” However, since that day in November 2020, and following further research and recent developments which I will discuss later on, I have slashed my original estimation to 15 years for our little valley in the Forest of Bowland (Lancashire and North Yorkshire border), and much less for England as a whole. 

Bearing in mind the understandably secretive nature of reintroducing an at-risk species (meaning that a new scheme may appear out of nowhere at any time), I would be willing to revise it yet again as (for once!) progress seems to be accelerating in the world of rewilding – there it is, the word you’ve all been waiting for!

Evidence of this acceleration are some of the more positive things that happened in 2020 , such as white-tailed eagles being reintroduced to England, beavers becoming the first ever legally reintroduced native mammal and plans being given the nod to release wild bison into Kent, set to happen in 2022.

All very exciting and encouraging, but let’s bring the conversation back to golden eagles. Specifically, to the latest, but definitely not the last, chapter of the golden eagle’s story in England.

Golden eagle. Credit: Ewan Miles.

England’s last golden eagle

Golden eagles have become synonymous with the Highlands after re-establishing a stronghold there, with over 400 pairs gracing the Scottish skies (such as the one pictured on the Isle of Mull, snapped by the brilliant Ewan Miles of Natural Scotland), but what they may not be aware of is how recently England lost its last specimen.

The unnamed male eagle disappeared from Riggindale in the Lake District at the estimated age of 20. His death was unanimously assumed to be natural, but remarkably the eagle only disappeared four short years ago, in 2016. 

His was a sad tale for several reasons. One being that, until their celebrated return in 1969, golden eagles had been absent from the Lake District for around 200 years. He was the last survivor of that population. 

Another reason, was the fact that he had spent the last 12 years of his life alone, following the death of his mate in 2004. Since then, every year for 12 years, the lonely eagle had optimistically built a nest and put on magnificent flying displays in an attempt to attract another female.

But none ever came, and just four short years ago England lost its last golden eagle.

Beaver pond varied water depths

Credit: James Wallace

Hope across the border

So golden eagles have only been officially absent from England for four years, but it feels like much longer. Their population was miniscule, not sustainable and no doubt affected by some part in the eggshell-thinning Organochlorine pesticides which persisted into the late 20th century. Many would argue that their second disappearance was inevitable.

On the other hand, all signs now indicate that their third coming is just as inevitable.

One key indication is that they’re already here! Well, one came on a flying – pun intended – visit while we were all in lockdown, no doubt emboldened by an abnormally quiet country, both on the ground and in the sky. 

The young female (underwhelmingly named Beaky) had recently been relocated from the Scottish Highlands to southern Scotland, along with three other young birds, and she made a pioneering flight of 90 miles to the Pennines in the north of England.

She returned to Scotland but her exploration has sparked new hope for the species re-establishing itself in England.

Another reason is that general attitudes towards wildlife, conservation and rewilding have improved during the pandemic as many, myself included, have either discovered, rekindled or simply fuelled their love of nature. 

The confinement saw all age groups spending more time in nature daily, according to a study carried out by the University of Cumbria, as 66% of parents/guardians claimed that their children had spent more time in nature and 77% of respondents to the study had taken a photograph or video recording of nature during the first national lockdown. 

Juvenile slow worm in the hand. Credit: James Wallace

Credit: James Wallace

Yet more good news for the eagles, and possibly the most significant for rewilding as a whole, is the fact that, since exiting the European Union, the Government has revealed plans to pull the plug on farming subsidies which have kept the loss-making industry of sheep farming afloat.

In his book, Feral, George Monbiot states that, “Sheep farming in this country is a slow-burning ecological disaster, which has done more damage to the living systems of this country than either climate change or industrial pollution.”

I imagine he was pleased to hear the news of the withdrawal of these subsidies. Taxpayers will now support farmers to assist nature in returning to the land rather than industrially fencing her out, a key step in the fight against climate change and locking carbon into the land.

In the coming years, we will no doubt witness big changes, which should pave the way for some of our most important and impressive species to move back into Britain, 51% of which is currently cordoned off for grazing animals, according to George Monbiot speaking on the BBC’s Open Country podcast.

The inevitable retreat of the sheep will be a particularly important development for the golden eagle, which is often persecuted for predating on young lambs. But as the eagles north of the border continue to thrive and seek new territories, attitudes and interest grow, and we make huge steps in preparing the landing ground, we are on the brink of a new era for Britain’s wilder wildlife.

For the last six years I have lived in one of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Barcelona, but the global pandemic saw me run home to my secluded valley in Lancashire, a landscape dominated by sheep farms. You may be surprised to hear that we keep a small number of sheep on our smallholding, and indeed benefit from land subsidies, but the world is changing

The land as it is now would be perfectly suited for golden eagles, which once thrived all over Britain, but once it becomes more financially viable to favour the tree over the sheep, the process will be accelerated.

River Otter female

River Otter, tagged female. Credit: Katie Grant

This year, England (lagging behind Scotland) saw its first ever government-sanctioned reintroduction of a native mammal, when a wild beaver population was given the green light to live legally in the River Otter, in East Devon. The white-tailed eagles, larger (a wingspan of eight-feet) and more of a threat to livestock than golden eagles, have already been reintroduced on the Isle of Wight, their last nesting place in England back in 1780, and have been thriving in Scotland for years. They may even beat their golden cousins to the Forest of Bowland. 

I have a vision, as clear as it is romantic. In it, I see my sister and I, walking the very same path on an unassuming day in the future. Suddenly we stop in our tracks as an unfamiliar but unmistakable call sounds overhead. Without even looking up, we turn to each other, and smile.*

Contact us for support at info@beavertrust.org and visit www.beavertrust.org for more information and to arrange a trip to the Cornwall Beaver Project.

(*This blog has been written by independent writers outside of our organisation. Beaver Trust welcomes a breadth of opinions, and those expressed within this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Beaver Trust.)

Matt Miills

Matt is a sports journalist based in Barcelona who, in March 2020, found himself back in the far-flung corner of Lancashire where he grew up. A life-long wildlife enthusiast, Matt hopes to devote more of his time to increasing awareness about the benefits of nature restoration. Follow Matt here.

© Matt Mills 2021.