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Project Outline

The Republic of Ireland has the lowest range of breeding birds of prey of all countries in the European Union.  Ireland only has 6 breeding birds of prey species.  Luxembourg seems to have 10 species, while neighbouring United Kingdom has 15 breeding species.  During the 18th, 19th and 20th century, Ireland lost at least another 6 breeding raptors, namely White-tailed Eagle, Osprey, Golden Eagle, Red Kite, Marsh Harrier and Goshawk.  These extinctions were a result of persecution and habitat loss. Scottish Golden Eagle experts are agreed that the Southwest of Scotland Golden Eagle populations no longer sufficiently productive to give any realistic expectation of the recolonisation of Ireland in the near future from a wild source.

Our project objective is to re-establish a viable Golden Eagle breeding population in the northwest of the Republic of Ireland.  Since this project was conceived in 1989, an enormous amount of planning and other environmental improvements have taken place.  The project has been chosen and part funded by the Irish Government as part of its National Millennium Celebration.  Therefore we have this unique opportunity to promote Golden Eagles as part of a national and very inclusive celebration of our vibrant Natural Heritage.  The proposal was also given a very rigorous assessment by Scottish Natural Heritage, who are satisfied the project meets the 53 reintroduction guidelines laid down by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and they will now issue the licence for donor stock.  4 renowned raptor experts, namely Prof Ian Newton, Dr Jeff Watson, Roy Dennis and Dr Duncan Halley, endorsed the project.

Bird of prey reintroductions are based on the knowledge that birds of prey try to breed close to their own natal (original nest) sites and consequently reintroduced birds tend to breed near their release sites.  Starting in June 2001, in conjunction with the Scottish Raptor Study Groups, we will remove up to 12 wild Golden Eagles chicks from nests in Scotland, under special licence from Scottish Natural Heritage, when they are 5-6 weeks old.  At this stage the eaglets can feed themselves and keep their own body temperature (thermoregulate).  They will be quickly transported to county Donegal and placed in specially designed avian cages.  The cages contain artificial nest platforms and perches.  The birds will be fed dead rabbits and crows through a secure hatch and sleeve so that no human contact takes place.  We need to avoid human imprinting at all costs.  Throughout the 5-6 week captive stage we will try to replicate the natural conditions as best we can.  As in the wild, the newly fledged (released) eagles will be provided with carrion for several months.  We will mark each bird with a pvc wing tag on each upper wing to aid individual identification and we will also fit a small radio transmitter to each bird in order to radio track wandering birds.

The survival rates of the released eagles will increase after the difficult first winter/spring has passed, mirroring the losses in wild populations.  Golden Eagles do not normally mature and attempt to breed until 4-5 years of age.  We need to release enough birds in order to ensure a sufficient number of individuals survive and form a viable breeding population.

There will be a detailed project review after three years to review the known survival rates and consider the total release numbers necessary. We hope the released birds will first attempt breeding in 2005 or 2006. Our research indicates that County Donegal could hold 7-10 pairs of Golden Eagles, the northwest of Ireland (Galway to Donegal) could hold 22-30 pairs and Ireland may eventually have 50 – 100 pairs. We have already established a Project Steering Group, which includes representatives of Dúchas (the Competent Authority for nature conservation in the Republic of Ireland), the Heritage Council, Údarás na Gaeltachta, the Irish Farmers Association and North West Tourism. Scottish Natural Heritage, due to their experience of Golden Eagles and re-introduction programmes, has been invited to join the Steering Group and they have agreed to do so. A project manager is now in post. He previously worked as project manager, with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds & Scottish Natural Heritage, on the very successful Red Kite Reintroduction programmes in Northern and Central Scotland.

Our research suggests the project’s biological context is very encouraging. Live prey transects have shown there is sufficient food available, the majority of potential home ranges are protected as Natura 2000 sites and indicator species such as Raven have high densities. We firmly believe the socio-economic context of this project is crucial. We have already identified four key audiences including, farmers, tourist interests, the Donegal general public and the Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) community who we are currently liaising with. Community involvement and raising bird of prey awareness will be central to the project’s success. Due to necessity, the emphasis in Irish conservation to date has been on stopping habitat and species losses. This project moves beyond the ‘fortress’ approach and shows nature conservation as proactive and visionary. This project will undoubtedly raise the public awareness of conservation in Ireland. We believe the re-introduction of Golden Eagles will not only restore a magnificent species but will also help promote the conservation of all large Irish raptors and our uplands in general.