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Two young Scottish sea eagles from Mull are making history as they explore their new home on the south coast of England.
The pair were hatched on Mull and are part of an ambitious five-year project to reintroduce the species to their former haunts across the British Isles.
The project is managed by the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation and Forestry England, and aims to release up to 60 young sea eagles from Scotland by 2024.
The Mull male and female were released on the Isle of Wight in 2019 where the last known sea eagles bred in 1780 – they were joined by four others collected from elsewhere in Scotland.
RSPB Scotland Mull Officer Dave Sexton was involved in the collection of the two Mull chicks in June 2019, as well as the public consultation exercise on the Isle of Wight.
He said: ‘To witness the first sea eagle releases in England and to know they were from Mull was a very moving experience for me. They have thrived ever since and have proved how easy it is for them to adapt and to settle, often unseen, into a more congested and built up environment than where they came from.
‘I’m proud, that after years of help and support from NatureScot, landowners, farmers and the public, Scotland is now in the wonderful position of being able to do for England what Norway did for us 46 years ago.
‘The thrill people feel when they see a sea eagle down south is evident from the many excited posts on Twitter and elsewhere. It’s a sight many thought they might never witness in their lifetime. In this era of lockdowns and worries over people’s health and wellbeing, the sight of a soaring white-tailed eagle can really lift the spirits. It was nerve wracking when we collected the chicks. We’re grateful to the landowners for allowing their chicks to be involved. You worry about them, of course, as if they were your own children, but the project managers looked after them so well and I’m just thrilled to have been part of this important chapter of British wildlife conservation history.’
Plans are already under way for this year when up to 12 more chicks could be collected from Mull and across Scotland. Only one chick from a brood of two is ever taken. In 2020 seven others were collected, but not from Mull, and taken to the Isle of Wight.
‘With luck and good survival, the first nesting in the south of England could happen by 2024. It might even be one of the Mull sea eagles involved,’ added Mr Sexton.
In 1975, a reintroduction project to Scotland began on Rum with birds donated from nests in Norway. The first successful nesting happened on Mull 10 years later and there are now thought to be about 150 pairs established in Scotland from Islay to Orkney. However, there are still cases of persecution in Scotland and a number of the reintroduced birds have been illegally killed over the years.
In 2019, Natural England approved a licence to begin a similar translocation project using chicks from Scottish nests.
Their historic first flights and subsequent explorations across their ancestors’ former range have thrilled and delighted the project managers. They were both fitted with light weight satellite tags which have tracked them day and night for the last two years.
The male was the first to fly and leave the Isle of Wight, spending winter in Oxfordshire then much of summer 2020 in North Yorkshire before heading to Norfolk then slowly making his way further south before arriving back on the Isle of Wight on February 8.
Once back home he immediately began interacting with the newly released chicks from 2020, catching grey mullet in the Solent and proving once again that sea eagles can be equally at home in busy, populated areas as they are across Europe as well as in remoter west coast Scottish island habitats, said Mr Sexton.
The female was more reluctant at first to explore far and did not leave the Isle of Wight until March 2020. Like the Mull male she also made her way north to Yorkshire, feeding on rabbits. They even occasionally met up – two local Muileachs exploring together. She is now back on the south coast of England after a distance of 3,787km.
Follow the fortunes of the two Mull sea eagles and the other released Scottish birds at www.roydennis.org/category/sea-eagle/isle-of-wight-sea-eagles