Of White-Tailed Sea Eagles and Overactive Imaginations

Posted on September 7, 2011

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The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) has irrevocably proven that they have an overactive imagination.

In a letter to the Scottish Government’s Environment Minister Stuart Stevenson the SGA requested a public inquiry and the formulation of an “exit strategy” in the event of white-tailed sea eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla) having adverse effects on social, economic or leisure activities. The request was put forward in light of a white-tailed sea eagle “attack” on Rev Hunter Farquharson in Abernethy in fear of further “aggression” from the birds with the SGA questioning whether “… these very large creatures differentiate between a small child and more natural quarry?”1

What the SGA failed to identify was that Rev Hunter Farquharson’s actions towards the bird were confrontational and thus provoked the attack that left him with injuries to his head and shoulder. Rev Hunter Farquharson is said to have tried to scare away the juvenile bird as it attempted to kill Bertie one of his prize winning geese after killing another, Beatrice2, 3. Such actions would warrant defensive action  by any predator to preserve itself and its food source.  Thus for the SGA to suggest that this isolated incident caused by poor judgement and confrontational human behaviour could result in further attacks by white-tailed sea eagles is horrifically outlandish.

It should also be noted that after birds being taken by a white –tailed sea eagle in 2008 the RSPB invested in protective netting for Rev Hunter Farquharson’s flock which had since been removed 3.

The SGA also makes reference to buzzards that have “obviously” undergone desensitisation attacking people. Again, the SGA misses the critical detail in that these incidents are attributed to parental defence of young nearby 4, 5 .

The question of whether “… these very large creatures differentiate between a small child and more natural quarry?” hardly deserves a response. The diet of the white tailed sea eagle is predominantly comprised of seabirds, waterfowl and fish and they are known to scavenge carrion 6. Few children resemble these food sources. Furthermore, the Scottish Government has pointed out that there are no other known instances of white-tailed sea eagle attacks on people in other countries in which the eagles reside. Interestingly the SGA has not raised similar concerns regarding children and golden eagles that have a 90% dietary overlap with the white-tailed  sea eagle, a wider distribution, a comparative tenfold population size and an impressive maximum wingspan of 7.5ft (only half a foot shy of that of the white tailed sea eagle)6, 7, 8. Perhaps we are one negative news story short of taking that leap.

What is so concerning about this “alarmist nonsense” (words RSPB Scotland used to so eloquently described the ignorance of the SGA) is that nowhere in its theatrical statement did the SGA mention further implementation and research into safeguarding people and social, economic and leisure activities to which they referred should their worst fears become reality. With of all of our knowledge and all of our ingenuity the SGA would prefer a UK wide re-extinction of a magnificent species should it become an inconvenience. This is deplorable and highlights the knowledge deficiency and bias that needs to be overcome if we are to continue to re-engage with our species rich past.

The Scottish Government has made it clear that there are no grounds for a public inquiry.

  1. http://www.scottishgamekeepers.co.uk/content/sga-calls-public-inquiry-sea-eagles-impact
  2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/8718155/Sea-eagle-attacks-reverend-and-his-flock….of-geese.html
  3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-tayside-central-14631018
  4. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/cornwall/8158022.stm
  5. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-east-wales-14169093
  6. WATSON, J., LEITCH, A. F. and BROAD, R. A. (1992), The diet of the Sea Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla and Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos in western Scotland. Ibis, 134: 27–31.
  7. http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/name/g/goldeneagle/index.aspx
  8. http://www.snh.org.uk/pdfs/strategy/GEConsult/8-KEYFACTSLEAFLET-B464148.pdf
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