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Mon27th May 2013

The small Golden Eagle population in Donegal is coping with the unseasonal wet and cold breeding season.  There are two active nests and several other sites occupied by pairs or single territorial birds.  One of the nests had two eggs, but only one egg hatched and the female chick is now almost five weeks old.  The adults have found it difficult to catch live prey during the recent spells of bad weather and large fires, in parts of the home range in May 2011, has meant that some of their territory is still devoid of food.  Late last week the first nest visit showed that the adults had brought in a badger cub, this is at least the fifth badger cub confirmed as prey for the Glenveagh Golden Eagle pair and it is suspected that several other badgers have gone unrecorded, as we only visit a nest 2-3 times annually during the 11-12 week period from hatching to fledging.

The nest ledge had very little nesting material on it, though it is reasonably well sheltered from the overhanging rock above the nest cup.  The adults have been seen hunting together over the Derryveagh Mountain tops late into the evening between 8-9pm and also in the early morning.  This is still the most productive pair in Donegal, they produced 1 chick in 2007, 2 chicks in 2009, 1 chick in 2010, 1 chick in 2011 and no chicks fledged in 2008 and last year, 2012.  Let us hope the weather picks up shortly and that the adults can catch enough live prey to bring back to the nest and feed the chick over the next seven weeks.

The second nest had two chicks and both chicks were observed in the nest on Friday 17th May and were approximately 3 weeks of age.  However the unusually wet and cold weather subsequently (especially Sat 18th and Sun 19th) probably led to a severe shortage of food being brought to the nest and by Wednesday 22nd May only one chick was observed during a long nest watch.  Usually only one Golden Eagle chick fledges from a nest each year.  Very often the older chick (which hatches out 3 days sooner than the second egg) can injure the younger chick.  But since the younger chick in this eyrie had survived for at least 3 weeks, it should have been able to avoid any sustained pecks from the older sibling and it is more likely that all available food was initially fed to the stronger and more demanding chick by the adult eagle.  The younger bird probably succumbed to a shortage of food as a result of repeated spells of poor weather, which would have curtailed the successful hunting of the adult birds.

In summary, the Golden Eagle project faces 3 primary constraints.  The shortage of donor stock from Scotland has been a limiting factor.  The poisoning or shooting  of Golden Eagles in Donegal, Northern Ireland and in north Connaught has also been a limiting factor and has been very difficult to confirm in remote mountains without  the use of Satellite tags.  And finally, the condition or quality of mountain habitats and associated mammals and bird species has been highlighted by detailed National Parks and Wildlife Service and Birdwatch Ireland surveys and reports.  However, if we can maintain a small breeding population, over time we may be able to minimise the impact of poisoning and enhance the condition of our mountains.  The Golden Eagle population would then be able to respond to those new opportunities.

It has been a very unusual spring and breeding season to date in the Donegal Mountains.  There has been very little growth in vegetation to date and Red Deer are still to be seen feeding in the valley bottom and adjacent fields.  Normally they would have moved to fresh grasses and browsing in the hill tops by now.  There have been very few signs of Moth caterpillars on the heather and Merlins must be finding it very hard to build up their body weight.  The shortage of insects, (especially spiders and Crane flies), has been quite obvious and the small upland passerines have been seen moving about in small groups rather than quickly establishing pairs and getting down to breeding.

On the positive side, there has been some important progress recently on the issue of poisoning enforcement and the statutory authorities are continuing to put in place a more rigorous monitoring and enforcement regime.  Over the coming months an even more robust system should be in place to deal with the illegal use of poison.  We have yet to raise sufficient awareness that the poisoning of foxes and crows was completely banned by EU Agricultural policies, which was enacted in Ireland in 2008.  Some of the media have been told that the wildlife lobby banned poisoning in the 2010, e.g. the Statutory Instrument (S. I. 481), whilst in fact this legislation actually allowed the use of poison, under strict licensing conditions, on non meat baits.  It just happens that there is not a single poison or veterinary medicine available in Ireland, which is registered and approved, for the control of Foxes and Crows since the 2008 Statutory Instrument, (S.I. 511) enacted in 2008.  Whilst poisoning remains the single biggest threat to Golden Eagles, White-tailed Sea Eagles and Red Kites, the use of poisons has decreased over the last decade and the continued spread of Buzzards is both; an expansion of the Irish population but also the result of a decreasing level of poisoning mortality.

At this early stage of the breeding season, it is worth noting that for the first time in over 200 years Ireland has at long last White-tailed Sea Eagle, Red Kite and Golden Eagle chicks developing in swaying tree tops and remote cliff ledges.  These nests were once an integral part of our annual breeding season and the continued support of the communities where they have settled is a real cause for optimism.  The strong rural tourism lobby is increasingly aware of the potential and benefits of wildlife for tourism, either through direct public visiting or its subtle use in promotional activities, and the agricultural sector is conscious of the importance of its ‘green image’ in marketing its Agri-Food exports.  The ongoing challenge for all wildlife NGOs is to try to harness and utilise a growing sense of the importance of wildlife for the two most important sectors of the rural economy, namely farming and tourism.  Hopefully in a couple of years time as the eagles and kites become more established across parts of the country, people will realise that the ‘Fear’ of these large birds of prey was largely based on quite exaggerated historical perceptions.  The Golden Eagle Trust restoration programmes have faced some real set-backs and presumably we will face further losses to poisoning in the future.  But at times we need to recognise the undoubted progress these projects are making and celebrate the very genuine community support they have evoked locally also.

Donegal Golden Eagle update
Wed6th Oct 2010

Following a difficult start to the year, with the poisoning of Conall, one of the Glenveagh Golden Eagle chicks from 2009, the encouraging outcome of the 2010 breeding season has provided a timely boost.

The Golden Eagle pair in Glenveagh had previously reared a single chick in 2007 and two chicks in 2009. This year the Glenveagh pair returned to their 2007 eyrie and successfully reared one chick which left the nest in late June. The picture above shows a small fox cub brought into the nest. The diet contained mostly Hares again this year and during an end of season search of the nest vicinity the remains of a predated adult Raven were also found. So considering the number of badger and fox cubs this pair predated previously, it is clear that this pair is having an impact, to some degree, on the food chain locally. The chick and adults have been seen in Glenveagh and the Glendowan Mountains up to the end of September.

In total three Golden Eagle pairs laid eggs in County Donegal in 2010. The eggs from a second pair again failed to hatch in 2010. But the project team were delighted when another pair of young birds, breeding for the first time, fledged two young in July in an area of hill sheep commonage. These birds have been resident for several years now, feeding on dead sheep during the winter and seabirds, rabbits and hares during the summer. The attitude and support of the local sheep men has been exemplary and the Golden Eagle Trust would again like to highlight this example of the co-operation between hill farming and wildlife interests. The farmers themselves have actually noted a decline in the number of attacks on newborn lambs, lambed outdoors, by nearby Hooded (Grey) Crows. And they acknowledge that the arrival of Golden Eagles into their glen has impacted on the previously unnaturally high number of Hooded Crows locally.
One of this brood of two was satellite tagged and its movements are now available on the GET website, as it wanders away from its natal area.

5 young Golden Eagle were also imported from Scotland, under licence from Scottish Natural Heritage, and released in Donegal in August. 58 young Golden Eagles have been released since the project began in 2001 and our aim is to collect and release 75 birds in total. In an effort to improve our knowledge of the dispersal routes of these young eagles along the west coast, and assess their survival rates, three of the released birds were fitted with Satellite Tags and their movements will shortly be available on the website.

Based on second hand information gleaned from Mongolian Eagle owners, via Roy Dennis in Scotland, we looked at the number of single scales above each talon on some of the released eagles. To our surprise one male eagle had 3 single scales on its middle toe, one female had four scales on the middle toe and the biggest female, as denoted by all our biometrics, had five sales. So even after 10 years of releases, we are still learning. And we will keep an eye out in future years to see if this was a mere statistical quirk or whether the number of toe scales is indicative of the strength of an individual!

Golden Eagle Chick Glenveagh
Wed5th May 2010

It is early Wednesday morning, 5th May 2010, and I was up till the wee small hours collating as many relevant points as possible for an Irish journalist, preparing to write a piece on the background of illegal poisoning in Ireland. I tried to focus on the legal, farming and economic arguments surrounding the impact of illegal poisoning. Since the 19th of February 2010 I have been in a bit of a tailspin, deflated and frustrated at the poisoning of Conall. I have done more fieldwork this season than over the last decade. Trying to walk away the tension I feel over our inability at convincing the authorities of the need to tackle poisoning quickly. I am vexed at the hypocrisy of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association successfully lobbying of Scottish Natural Heritage, suggesting that Irish farmers have no respect for wildlife. Embarrassed as an Irish person, that those guys who various Scottish experts believe and calculate to kill 30-60 Golden Eagles a year, are even slightly sheltered by a poisoning of 1-2 Golden Eagles a year in Ireland. Constantly, refrain from entering the stress of Scottish rural politics and their feud between conservationists and gaming interests. Four months of stress last year was enough.

I could easily justify working 24/7 on illegal poisoning policy. Still to contact the Irish Veterinary Board and the Irish Kennel Club to get estimates on how many dogs are poisoned annually. For some reason nobody collates illegal poisoning cases. Frustrated that this small charity is somehow expected to drive policy based on illegal activity, which is surely the responsibility of a range of statutory authorities. I can understand why so few public servants are rushing to fill their desk with poisoning papers - the whole national governance of poisoning seems a mess and very complicated. But I know that when the European Commission assess our complaint on the matter - change will come. God! still have to send an updated account of recent poisoning incidents to Brussels.

Conall was an Irish bred Golden Eagle chick, reared in Glenveagh National Park, Donegal after a considerable amount of effort by ourselves in the Golden Eagle Trust, NPWS staff in Glenveagh and a large number of Volunteers. We were very reassured that our efforts paid dividends last summer, but in February I simply despaired that a very small number of individuals were still intent on laying waste to any form of nature they were not prepared to tolerate on their farms or commonage.

The poisoning of protected birds of prey is as much about the attitudes of landowners in rural Ireland as it is about the enforcement of wildlife and poisoning legislation. The attitude and ethos of the Golden Eagle Trust is primarily about trying to encourage, coax and cajole sceptical farmers that the return of native birds of prey will not impact on their livelihoods. We have cited the experience of other sheep farmers in Scotland, Wales and Norway to show that modern farming can easily co-exist with, or accomodate [if you prefer that term], nature. But as predators, we always knew that the attitudes of farmers and gun clubs towards raptors would be a real thermometer of the respect for nature in Ireland. The attitude to predators globally usually reflects a wider societal attitude to nature in general.

I started working toward the reintroduction of Golden Eagles into Ireland in 1995 alongside my late colleague Jim Haine, Ronan Hannigan and John Marsh. The idea was not new and the National Parks and Wildlife Service staff in Glenveagh National Park had been examining the possibilities since 1990. From the outset we recognised that poisoning was still the main threat to any Eagles we might eventually release in Donegal. Indeed the main opposition to the reintroduction of the Golden Eagles came from the Irish conservation movement, who cited possible natural re-colonisation, lack of habitat and food and the need to fund other extant wildlife priorities as additional reasons for postponing any return of extinct Irish raptors.

Over the years, most of these arguments have been proven to be unfounded. The release of the Golden Eagles has helped raise the public profile of the benefits of nature alongside a noticeable increase in public awareness across the whole range of Irish nature. But the earlier concerns regarding poisoning remain unanswered. The survival rates of the established adult Golden Eagles in 7-8 territories in Donegal is good - clearly showing poisoning no longer occurs in these areas. But the worry remains that the poisoning of wandering Golden Eagles remains unchecked outside these core areas.

Though the attitude of the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) in Donegal has been excellent in relation to these matters, the lack of any real direction from the IFA nationally has been disappointing. They may be unwilling to simply admit that illegal poisoning is no longer in their own interests, whatever about its impact on wildlife. We sense that the IFA have the very difficult job of trying to appease and represent two very different types of Irish farmer. On the one hand they represent small farm holdings, especially along the western seaboard and in upland and bogland areas. Most of these farmers work 'off-farm' to supplement their meagre farm incomes. These individuals are very sensitive to promoting the wider rural economy. However, the bigger and richer farmers in parts of Munster and Leinster are very nervous that the forthcoming reforms of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy may direct a bigger slice of funding away from big agricultural food production units toward broader rural development goals in areas occupied by smaller farmers. The general public and politicians will need to strongly support the IFA in their efforts to maintain current subsidy levels post these important European Agricultural reforms post 2013. Whatever policies the IFA pursue over the coming years, it is clear that a percentage of the Irish public will be increasingly agitated by any perceived tolerance of illegal poisoning among farming representatives in Ireland. Irish conservationists are clearly on the side of minimising farm abandonment on small holdings and generally wish to see these individuals funded because of their important role in food production, in maintaining rural communities, and yes, in enhancing our depleted biodiversity.

The ongoing light regulation of illegal poisoning ensures taxpayers money is still given, under both the Single Farm Payment and Agri-Environment schemes, to hundreds of individuals who still use poison illegally. We suggest that the Department of Agriculture need to represent all of Irish society equally, not just the farming sector. It is very clear to us how the tourism sector in rural Ireland is exasperated by the inaction of the Department, whether in relation to mountain fires or poisoning. These issues need to be tackled openly. Yes, they are very difficult to enforce but they cannot be ignored in the hope that they will evaporate.

Irish conservationists are generally loathe to tangle with Irish farmers. Farmers and Coillte (the semi-state Forestry sector) own the vast majority of land in Ireland. They have both made many important environmental and wildlife advances over the last decade, reflecting best practice in their respective sectors. Farmers are tired of all the restrictions placed on them due to rising conservation standards. They perceive the 'Green Agenda' as a new form of "Green Landlordism" and the emotive and historical connotations that holds in rural Ireland. I sometimes sense however that some landowners still hold an old Imperial Feudal attitude toward their property - they own it and they will do as they please on their property. And whilst they have enshrined property rights, in this Republic it is the Oireachtas that will decree which aspects of wildlife are protected, in the wider national interests. These emotive points of view need to be finessed so that we all can agree a forward plan that will enhance the well being of farmers and the wider public equally.

The National Rural Network held an important conference on the 2nd December, in Croke Park, and in his closing speech Ciaran Lynch, Head of Sustainable Rural Development Department, Tipperary Institute, emphasised the issue of Trust (see http://www.nrn.ie/the-national-rural-network/events/conference09/proceedings/ - see audio clip of his comments). These concluding remarks clearly encapsulate all the key issues surrounding poisoning in rural Ireland. As he states, we need to develop a common social good, we need to share resources and benefits, and we need to develop mutual respect and trust, collaboration and dialogue in order to reach an agreed outcome for rural Ireland. These remarks are well worth listening to. The GET recognises that we have only one of many competing perspectives and we have deliberately tried to adopt a compromise on effective poisoning legislation, though we are all personally opposed to poisoning. We have tried to reassure farmers that we are not opposed to control of foxes and crows but wish to see this control carried out within the law and in a discriminate manner.

Unless we can find an agreed outcome to the issue of Fox and Crow control and the protection of newborn lambs, illegal poisoning will continue. The very small Golden Eagle population may produce 1-2 wild bred Golden Eagles annually, which will repeatedly disperse into neighbouring counties such as Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo and Galway and will encounter the odd poisoned meat baits left on the hill - which will attract any scavenging animal - and die as a result. The population will then gradually decrease due to natural mortality and illegal persecution and eventually become extinct again. The stain on the green image of the Irish Agri-Food Sector will grow and the potential for local promotion of unspoilt landscapes in the Northwest will be lost. Neither sector will crash as a result, but the international reputation of Ireland will be damaged. If Golden Eagles become extinct again, due to the inaction of the Agri-food sector, it will further damage the potential for building trust within the rural economy. The farming sector may perceive illegal poisoning as a wildlife threat but we now perceive the majority of poisoning as an illegal farm practice. We may never reach total agreement with the farming sector on the matter, but politicians and statutory authorities need to address the matter and find an agreed approach and enforce it vigorously.

15 years after embarking on efforts to restore Golden Eagles to Ireland I often reflect on the choices we made in the past. The majority of respected ornithologists at the time suggested it was madness to proceed - one individual said Irish farmers would have all the 6 eagles, released in 2001, poisoned before Christmas. The people behind the Eagle project felt that Donegal farmers were supportive of wildlife, as indicated by the local Buzzard population and could be persuaded to tolerate Golden Eagles. We are still of the view that the vast majority of farmers in Donegal either tolerate or openly support the Golden Eagles that visit their properties. These wild creatures were restored with Millennium funding at a time when we were all more optimistic. It is clear that the survival of the Golden Eagles will now depend on the attitude and voice of the general public and their local politicians. Inaction regarding poisoning will cause Ireland to lose its Golden Eagles once again. I still hope that Ireland will simply not tolerate the ongoing illegal poisoning of protected birds of prey. It makes no sense in terms of Agricultural, socio-economic reasons or culturally. Light regulation has not worked and will not work. But yes doubts have crept in. At times we wonder whether anyone is really listening. But we believe that in the long term, the farming lobby will see that it is not in their long term interests to be associated with illegal poisoning. The consumers of their farm produce and food do care about Irish Eagles and nature in general.

The Golden Eagle chick was found poisoned on Truskmore Mountain in mid February and 'Dr Poison' in Ballintrillick has since poisoned a Raven in nearly the exact same spot. He must feel totally immune from the Irish authorities - with no pressure brought to bear on his Single Farm Payment. Yes, the proof is scarce and his boasting about poison is inadmissible. One local lady reported her dog was poisoned with Strychnine in January 2010. She believed the poison was thrown into her enclosed garden where her two young children play. Just imagine if the children had picked up and discarded the poisoned bait and then later licked their fingers laced with Strychnine. This is the attitude and mind set of poisoners - 'they are right and do not tell them what they may or may not do on their land or commonage'.

But yet there is hope. Garda in Kerry sought and were granted a search warrant in relation to the latest White-tailed Eagle poisonings in Kerry - progress. A White-tailed Eagle has wandered unmolested over hundreds of farms over the last ten months visiting 28 of the 32 counties on the island of Ireland. This is a clear demonstration that the vast majority of farmers no longer use poison. Attitudes are changing, but we can only hope that the illegal use of poisoning will diminish quickly.

But the question remains, were we right to try to re-establish Golden Eagles at the start of the new Millennium in 2001? The survival rate of the released birds in Ireland is equal to the survival rates of their siblings in Scotland, who also encounter illegal poisoning. So it is not a moral issue (as they could have better chances of survival in Ireland , if one takes account of their unnaturally high survival rate as fledglings in Ireland), merely a question of judgement. Was it too optimistic to try to restore an Iolar Fíréan (which translates as the 'righteous or just eagle') to Ireland? Will the old Irish respect for nature or the 'couldn't care less' Ireland prevail?

Time will tell, but time is running out. We will continue to try to engage with the farming sector, but to be frank many of the culpable individuals will pay little heed to any reasonable views, within or out with the farming sector. If we can openly admit we have a poisoning problem in rural Ireland and tackle these individuals, especially by carrying out farm inspections where poisoned birds are found and enforcing new poisoning legislation, we will prevail. Yes, we still hope Golden Eagles will once again soar over Irish mountains. But that means the wishes of the people and the laws passed by our Oireachtas must pertain to those mountains. If an attitude that Irish law simply does not apply on remote Irish mountains prevails, we are fearful that the couple of hundred poisoners in Ireland will, in time, boast that Irish Golden Eagles are extinct and Irish nature has been tamed again.

News Updates pic
Fri4th Dec 2009

Conall is roosting outside Sligo Town Centre tonight, the 2nd December 2009. It is asleep less than 7km away, to the east near Loughanelton. Over the last 10 days it has wandered between Ballintrillick and Benbo and over near Lough Gill. It also made a brief trip to Slieve Anieran.

As as it wanders around the Sligo/Leitrim Border, it does appear that the Glencar Lough hills are the centre of its current foraging range. It is obviously finding enough food on the hills and it has been north of Lough Gill before, so it will know its way around this particular area, when it wakes up!

Wonder will it come back to Glenveagh, for a brief visit, before Christmas?

Mon30th Nov 2009

After roosting on some crags to the south of Glencar Lough earlier in the week, Conall roosted on the north side of Glencar Lough on Wens. night. We could more or less pick out the tree in which it was roosting at 5.00 am in the morning. People visiting the beautiful Glencar Waterfall, can now genuinely be told that Golden Eagles occasionally visit the area and once bred in the nearby hills. I wonder what W.B. Yeats would think of eagles returning to the landscape he was so found of?

Got a phonecall on Friday, from a man in Keshcarrigan, Leitrim who had watched a immature Golden Eagle, on and off for 4 hours, soaring high over the hills at Slieve Anierin, Leitrim (east of Lough Allen) ( thank you John). He was amazed how bright and radiant the white plumage patches in the middle of the wing and at the base of the tail were, on this first year Golden Eagle. I was pleased that the bird was obviously in good shape and keeping its plumage clean during this spell of wet weather.

John said he also saw two ring-tail Hen Harriers (female of immature harriers, mostly brown with obvious white band at base of tail) flying nearby at the time. John had been in Donegal on numerous occassions and never seen an eagle. Where will Conall's journey lead to next?

It is extremely likely that this was Conall, which had moved up to 40km to the south from Glencar, where it had been tracked foraging at 7 am earlier in the day.

Conall wanders around Glencar
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