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Golden Eagle Project

This documentary was first broadcast on RTÉ Radio One, on Wednesday, November 7th 2001 at 8:02pm.

Listen to the documentary.

Presented by Dr. Richard Collins
Produced by Derek Mooney

Thursday August 9th was a historic day for nature conservation in Ireland, when six Golden Eagle chicks were released to the wild at Glenveagh National Park in County Donegal. The eagles had been flown from Aberdeen to Carrickfin Airport, Donegal in a chartered plane on June 27th, courtesy of Enterprise Oil and then taken by road to Glenveagh.

These are the first birds to be imported from Scotland, in the Irish Raptor Study Group's bid to re-introduce the Golden Eagle to Ireland almost a century after it had been rendered extinct. The eagles were met at their new home in Glenveagh by Dúchas Minister Síle de Valera. The media turned out in force, with four TV crews, a battalion of press photographers and a host of well-wishers from all over the county.

Dr. Richard Collins, of Mooney Goes Wild, joined the Golden Eagle re-introduction team, when they collected some of the young eagles from Scottish eyries. John Marsh and Lorcan O'Toole of the Irish Raptor Study Group were licensed to take up to 15 young birds to Ireland this year. Over the next five years, about 75 chicks will be brought to Ireland. The eyries which provided the chicks were located earlier in the season by Scottish volunteers and eagle experts.

The 2001 season was a very bad one for Golden Eagles in Scotland and the numbers breeding successfully were low. A bird can be taken only from eyries in which there are two surviving chicks. Eagles usually lay two eggs. The eggs are laid three or four days apart and incubation begins with the first one. The first chick, therefore, has a head start on the younger sibling. The older chick persecutes the younger one and, in 80% of cases, kills it. This is known as the Cain and Able Syndrome. It means that about one in five eyries will fledge two chicks.

With so few nests this year, the team had to travel the length and breadth of the highlands to obtain birds. Although based at Inverness on the east coast, there have been visits to Wester Ross, other west coast locations and the Central Highlands. The most remote location, which provided a chick, was the Isle of Skye.

The long daylight length of late June helped the capture programme. This is particularly pronounced in the north of Scotland. There is even some light at midnight, allowing the team to stay well up on the mountains until after ten at night.

Lorcan with one of the young eagles Eagles nest on cliffs and usually in the most inaccessible places. To do this work, Lorcan had to undergo training in rock climbing. He usually headed for the top of the cliff, roped up and absailed down to the nest. Most of the chicks, however, were easy to handle. They 'reared up' a little in defence but did not get too distressed. Each selected chick was put into a hold-all bag and hauled to the summit on a rope. Lorcan ringed the remaining chick at each eyrie before leaving.

The six young eagles were taken to a holding centre at Inverness. There the birds were given plenty of fresh rabbit to eat. The centre is in a quiet rural (and secret) location where disturbance is minimal. At this age, baby eagles do not quarrel. Nor are they brooded at night by their parents, so sitting around in the centre waiting for their next meal is just what they would be doing if they had remained in the wild (except that the view from the eyrie in the wild is so much more exciting!).

At Glenveagh, the eagles were installed in specially prepared pens. The pens resembled wild eagle eyries with nests of sticks and a view of the terrain. To the baby eagles, the scene would not differ greatly from the one they left in Scotland. The pens were at a secret location in the park. It is most important that the eagles do not become tame and lose their fear of man. Therefore, it was essential that the birds seldom, if ever, encountered people. They did not even see the hand that fed them: their food being dropped to them through a sleeve just as food would be dropped on the nest by a natural parent.

Just prior to release, radio transmitters were fitted to the birds. The transmitters, which are very expensive, are loosely fitted like a knapsack on the bird's back. The expense is justified given the wealth of information that the little radios provide. The whereabouts of the eagles can be determined by scanning the horizon with a hand held antenna and moving in the direction of the strongest signal. The radios, when the signal is not blocked by obstacles such as hills, can be pick up 10km to 15km away from the bird. The batteries in the units have a five year life.

The babies were weighed, measured and pronounced fit and well. Then the doors of their cages were opened leaving them free to come and go as they pleased. Some of the birds left the cages quickly, others lingered for a while.

Food is still being provided at feeding stations in the park. For the first few days the eagles did not take the food. Perhaps they had already eaten so much in captivity that they did not require more. In the wild the parent stop feeding the young shortly before they fledge.

Radio monitoring shows that five of the birds are well. Food is still being provided at feeding stations but Lorcan thinks that they are hunting and feeding normally in the wild. The Mooney Goes Wild team watched one such bird quartering the ground. It plunged into the heather occasionally as if in pursuit of a rodent or a rabbit, although it was not seen to catch anything.

So far, the birds are staying close to their release area. One bird stopped moving about and Lorcan was able to locate it using its radio signal. The casualty was alive when found but very badly. It had extensive injuries to its back which seemed at first sight to have been caused by a fox or a dog. However, a fox is unlikely to be the culprit. Previously, the bird had been observed crashing in an attempt to land on a cliff-face, so its injuries may have result from a collision and a subsequent fall. The bird had no prospect of survival and, on veterinary advice, it was put down.

If you happen to see a Golden Eagle in the mountains of Donegal or elsewhere in Ireland, please report your sighting to:
Lorcán O'Toole,
Church Hill,
Co. Donegal
Tel.: 074 37070
E-mail: info@goldeneagle.ie

For more information about the Golden Eagle Re-Introduction Project, visit www.goldeneagle.ie

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