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Where Eagles Soar: Working collaboratively for Golden Eagles

Golden eagles were once widespread throughout southern Scotland and indeed south of the border in England. However, now only two breeding pairs remain in the south of Scotland. With little breeding success and little movement between the main Scottish population of eagles it is now necessary to reinforce the southern population with young eagles from the Highlands. By Ronan Dugan, WildLand Conservation Assistant.

The south of Scotland, stretching from the Borders in the east, to Dumfries and Galloway in the west has plenty of habitat suitable for golden eagles. There is also a suitable food source for them in this part of the country. Each year the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project look for a handful of golden eagle chicks from the stronger more robust population in the Highlands to be donated to the project. Golden eagle numbers are steadily increasing at Gaik Estate, part of WildLand Cairngorms and the wider Cairngorms Connect partnership area. Under WildLand management, the numbers of golden eagles have increased from one breeding pair to three breeding pairs. This summer, WildLand Limited donated one golden eagle chick to the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project.

Earlier this year, WildLand staff observed one of our golden eagle pairs incubating. They chose a favourite eyrie deep in the hills of Gaick at the head of Glen Tromie. After the eagles’ incubation period of around 44 days, WildLand staff returned to the nest and identified twin chicks. Both chicks appeared healthy and the parents had provisioned them with red grouse and mountain hare. This particular pair of golden eagles have been particularly productive in recent years, hatching twins for four consecutive years.  We analysed the diet of these eagles and have found that they prey on fox cubs and red deer calves, as well as red grouse and mountain hare. Throughout the spring we monitored the progress of the eagles closely and reported the two chicks to the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project. We were delighted that one of our golden eagle chicks could be donated to the project and help to reinforce the population in the south of Scotland.

A golden eagle chick peers up from a small craggy ledgeImage (above): Young Golden Eagle chick peering up from it's nest. Credit: Ronan Dugan. 

In late June, the project team travelled to WildLand Cairngorms to collect the chick. It was a beautiful summer morning, as we drove up Glen Tromie, alongside the riparian ribbon of alder trees which follow the banks of the river, we enjoyed views of hen harriers and marvelled at the natural regeneration advancing up the hills. The bright green of the young rowan and birch were very visible in the morning sun. Before setting off to the eagles’ nest we enjoyed a tasty refreshment courtesy of the WildLand hospitality team. During coffee, we all chatted about how fantastic it was to spend time in a regenerating landscape in the absence of grazing pressure. No deer or sheep were seen – a landscape full of hope!

A landscape photo showing three small figures walking across a hill

Image (above): Staff from the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project, WildLand Cairngorms and Cairngorms Connect head into the hills for the chick collection. Credit: Ronan Dugan. 

We saddled up and hiked into a deep gully within the hills at Gaick. In old Gaelic, Gaick means the crooked glen – very apparent given the complex topography we were facing. After several kilometres, we reached the nest on a small crag above a fast flowing and ever-changing mountain burn. The highly experienced and trained team collected the two eagle chicks from the nest. After taking measurements and assessing the body condition of each chick we were able to identify them as a male and female. The female chick was selected, and her age estimated to be 7.5 weeks. Before being returned to the nest, a small ring was fitted to the male chick, for future identification and research purposes. His sister was carefully placed into a wooden basket for transportation back to the roadside.

Hands holding a small notebook and pencil, for recording eagle data

Image (above): Recording eagle data in a small notebook. Credit: Ronan Dugan. 

We returned to the vehicles after successfully collecting the young eagle. The project team and the eaglet then began their journey to the south of Scotland. On arrival at her new home, this young eaglet will be paired with another eagle which was collected on a different estate the day before. These new eagle twins will remain in an artificial nest for a few months before being gradually released into the wilds of southern Scotland.

A golden eagle chick is lowered into a travelling box.

Image (above): The golden eagle chick is lowered into a specially designed case for transporting. Credit: Ronan Dugan. 

WildLand and Cairngorms Connect thank the project team from the South of Scotland for collaborating on this important project. We look forward to receiving and sharing further updates from the project!

 Main image and thumbnail: Using callipers to measure the talons of the young eaglet. Credit: Ronan Dugan. 

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