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White-tailed Eagle Profile

Iolar Mhara - Haliaeetus albicilla

White-tailed Eagle populations declined throughout much of their European range during the 19th century leading to extinction in Ireland, Scotland, the Faeroes, and most of southern Europe. Human persecution through shooting and laying poison baits were the primary reasons for population declines and extinctions in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century. Environmental pollution led to further wholesale declines throughout the species range from the 1940s-1960s. Discovery of the catastrophic effects of pollutants on the reproduction of predatory and scavenging birds at the top of food chain led to the banning of DDT, a widely used crop pesticide. White-tailed Eagles were among the species most adversely affected by DDT and other pollutants such as PCBs but populations began to recover with the banning of DDT in the Baltic States in the early 1970s.

The loss of both Golden and White-tailed Sea Eagles in the early 20th century has been considered “the single most significant loss in our birdlife probably since the coming of man to Ireland” (D'Arcy 1999). Sea eagles were once widespread, although apparently largely coastal and western in their recent historical distribution in Ireland. The prevalence of place-names containing the Irish name for eagle ‘Iolar’ or anglicised derivations suggests a long historical association between man and eagles, such as Sliabh an Iolar (near Slea Head), Beenanillar Head (mountain of the eagle) on Valentia Island, and Cloghananillar (stony place of the eagle) near Hog’s Head. Eagles are mentioned in poetry as early as the 8th century, in the illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells and in the heraldic shields of several old Irish families such as O’ Donoghue and O’ Rafferty.

D’Arcy suggests that Ireland held a minimum of 75 nest sites attributable to sea eagles in the early 19th century. The advent of gamekeepers and game production on estates, and the introduction of strychnine as a poison bait led to drastic population decline. Sea eagles, being commoner, less wary of humans and more of a scavenger, suffered more so than the Golden Eagle during this period. Eagle eggs and skins were also highly prized by the Victorian collectors. By 1894 there were “still one or two pairs in Mayo and Kerry” but by 1900 the species was gone, the last documented nesting being in 1898. The Golden Eagles hung on as a breeder for another 14 years, the last pair nesting in Mayo about 1912. A single Golden Eagle was seen in south Mayo up to 1931. For the first time in millennia Irish skies were devoid of eagles.