Today I was standing on the cliffs of Waternish on Skye watching a White Tailed Eagle hunting. It was breathtaking and I felt privileged to be in the presence of such a striking creature. I felt even more privileged to watch it being mobbed by a Peregrine Falcon.
Peregrines are my favourite bird, but, like White Tailed Eagles, they have been viewed as pests. Historically they suffered persecution to protect the interests of a wealthy shooting minority, who had replaced this swift hunting companion of kings with the cold and brutal gun. Their persecution escalated during the First World War, when they were killed for their tendency to eat messenger pigeons. Egg collecting only worsened their plight and then came DDT, which nearly drove the species entirely extinct. By the start of the 1960s 80% of the UKs Peregrines were gone.
This extraordinary bird, the fastest creature on earth, a beauty to behold, was nearly lost forever by the culmination of many very short sighted and ultimately selfish acts. They hovered on the brink of extinction in the UK, but thankfully avoided that fate. The White Tailed Eagle was not so lucky.
The last of the UKs White Tails was shot in Shetland in 1918. The last recorded breeding attempt was two years earlier here on Skye, almost a century before my own visit and sighting of this magnificent bird. The persecution suffered by all predatory birds and mammals during the Victorian era had driven them extinct. Thankfully they are returning.
Peregrines’ can now be found even in the heart of major cities, nesting on office blocks and cathedrals. I have seen them hunting crow and pigeon in Essex, their wild cries an echo of distant sea cliffs, above the bustling commuters below. White Tailed Eagles returned to the UK with the help of conservation bodies via a campaign of reintroduction beginning in 1975, opposed from the start by the very interests that drove the bird into extinction to begin with. A study by the RSPB has found that tourists attracted to the Island of Mull alone by the eagles bring up to five million pounds annually to the islands economy. Sheep farming eat your heart out.
Sadly however the Victorian attitudes that saw these birds, and others like them, swept from our countryside have yet to face their own – well deserved – extinction. Today marks one year since the event that has come to be known as the Ross-shire Massacre. In the space of a few unpleasant days 16 red kits and 6 buzzards were found dead in the area around Conon Bridge in the Scottish Highlands. It seems the police are no closer to catching the culprit (suspicious folk suggest they’ve not been looking that hard…) although toxicology tests have shown that most (if not all) were killed by ‘an illegally-held poisonous substance’ (Police Scotland press release issued back in June).
The graceful red kite once foraged on city streets throughout Europe. In the disease-ridden middle-ages its habit of scavenging waste was seen as a boon and a public health benefit. They were protected by royal decree with execution the punishment for anyone who killed a kite. Like the peregrine however the kite found that kings make for fair-weather friends. Classed as ‘vermin’ alongside all other birds and beasts with hooked beaks or claws they were slaughtered until the British population was reduced to only a tiny remnant in the Welsh uplands.
The kite’s return has been spectacular and heart-warming. Aided by reintroduction schemes by conservationists the red kite now has an estimated population of around 1,800 pairs in the UK (compare that to less than 20 back in the 1950s). Does it matter then that 16 were killed a year ago? Of course it does, because this killing is indicative of the very problem that led to the collapse of the population in the first place. If people such as those who carried out this atrocity are allowed to have their way the kite will be gone from our countryside once again. With it will go the peregrine and the eagles, the hen harrier and the goshawk, the wild cat and the martin and everything else that doesn’t fit in with their idea of a sterile, orderly countryside where nature and people alike ‘know their place’ and wildness exists only for show.
My trip to Skye is coming to an end (expect a blog or two about it – and plenty of pictures! – soon). Watching the eagle, mobbed by its smaller, more nimble, cousin in the sky above Waternish gives me a great deal of hope, hope that the lack of any prosecution over the ‘Ross-shire Massacre’ might have denied. These birds can come back, they can live alongside us and enrich our lives, but only if we refuse to allow a minority of selfish individuals to vandalise our countryside in their own interest.
Having followed the story of the red kites at Conon Bridge I painted this image, which is available as a limited edition print. All funds raised from sales of this print will be donated to the RSPB in order to help them fund their investigations department whose work I believe is vital in the fight against wildlife crime. Prints are still available so if you’re interested please get in touch at Janice.Duke@hotmail.co.uk