An idea that might just fly

 

WILDLIFE:Despite the opposition, Lorcan O’Toole hopes we will one day see eagles take up residence in Ireland again, writes EOIN BURKE-KENNEDY

LORCAN O’TOOLE IS a man who chooses his words carefully. As head of the Golden Eagle Trust, the group which operates the two eagle reintroduction projects in Ireland, he is at the centre of an age-old battle. The trust’s aim is to re-establish breeding populations of golden and white-tailed eagles on the island after an absence of more than 100 years. For these projects to stand any chance of success, O’Toole knows he must convince landowners and conservationists – two groups, which haven’t always seen eye to eye – that their interests lie together. It’s a diplomatic mission burdened with a legacy of mistrust, but one which is vital to the future health of the ecosystem.

For the past month, O’Toole has been dealing with the fallout from another spate of suspected poisonings which saw white-tailed eagles killed in Donegal and Mayo. Preliminary tests suggest the Mayo bird was poisoned and shot; experts are still trying to establish in which order.

O’Toole also fears that a pair of nesting golden eagles which have disappeared from their regular haunt in Donegal may have been poisoned.These types of incidents have dogged the eagle projects from the start despite efforts to raise awareness about the projects.

O’Toole admits that the trust’s partners in Norway, where the white-tailed eagle chicks are sourced, view Ireland as “backward”. And the figures don’t exactly make for good reading. Since 2007, the trust has released 100 white-tailed eagles in Kerry. So far, the corpses of 22 birds have been recovered. Of the 60 golden eagles imported from Scotland and released in Donegal since 2001, seven have been found dead. While some of the birds died from natural causes, the majority were poisoned.

O’Toole believes the figures underestimate the true rate of poisoning incidents, as not all the birds can be accounted for and there is anecdotal evidence that others may have been killed.

Five of the 10 white-tailed eagles to which satellite tags were attached three years ago have been found poisoned, which implies a poisoning rate of 50 per cent. O’Toole describes the recent poisonings as “scandalous”. One gets the sense he could say a lot more but diplomacy gets the better of him. He is keen to point out that most incidents are not intentional and arise from the irresponsible use of poisoned meat baits.

Since 2010, the practice of using poisoned meat baits to control farmland pests such as foxes and crows has been outlawed because of the knock-on effects on other species, particularly birds of prey.

Despite widespread condemnation, to date no-one has been prosecuted for an incident which led to the death of an eagle. Given the area these birds range, it is difficult to trace the source of the poisons. Nonetheless, O’Toole says the use of poisoned meat baits remains the single biggest obstacle to establishing viable, self-sustaining populations of eagles here.

The viability threshold for these birds is complex and depends on a number of factors, such as the number of pairs breeding, the rate of productivity and survival rates. O’Toole believes a small golden eagle population could gain a foothold here if there were four to five fledglings born a year in the wild. Last year, there were two.

Aside from addressing unease in Norway and Scotland, O’Toole faces, arguably, a stiffer task in convincing wary landowners that the re-emergence of these large predators does not pose a threat to livestock.

He acknowledges that the predator control issue is controversial and “in some ways contradictory” in that farmers are being told they have a right to protect their newborn lambs and game birds from predators like foxes and crows but not from eagles.

However, he is adamant that the re-emergence of eagles will limit predation by foxes and crows by restoring a balance to the ecosystem which has been lost since the extinction of bigger predators in the 18th and 19th centuries. With eagles hunting crows and fox cubs, there are less of these predators around to pester livestock.

“Some of the farmers in Donegal have told me that they welcome the reintroduction of eagles, as they have had less lamb losses through fox and crow predation with eagles in the vicinity,” said O’Toole. Nevertheless, he is mindful that in many parts of rural Ireland people feel their way of life and their traditions are under threat from increasing levels of regulation and “going around talking about bird directives and biodiversity doesn’t always help”.

He is convinced the best way forward is for farmers to play a more proactive role in rural development. O’Toole acknowledges that the attitude to eagles and other large birds of prey has, in centuries past, been less than healthy. It’s an attitude he links to a recalcitrant belief that nature was there to be subjugated by man.

However, O’Toole is convinced that bringing back these birds represents a restoration of an older Gaelic heritage which was “more respectful of nature”. He points to the images of eagles emblazoned on early Christian texts and the use of the birds in the family crests of names like Joyce, Boyle and O’Donoghue. “Eagles were seen as virtuous animals in old Ireland.”

The latest poisonings come on the back of the disappointing news that a pair of young white-tailed sea eagles which had nested and bred for the first time (in the modern era) in Ireland had abandoned their nest in Lough Derg. O’Toole, however, remains upbeat, insisting it’s not untypical of juvenile birds to fail at the first attempt.

He also points to the “phenomenal public interest” generated by the presence of the birds. More than 800 people a week visited the area prior to the nest being abandoned.

It seems he’s not alone in wanting to see these magnificent creatures circling our skies once again.

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