Reintroducing eagles to Snowdonia has been in the news recently. Here our Director, John Harold, gives a personal take on a few of the questions this raises.
Another bird, another planet
Bleiksøya is a shark’s tooth, an island off the end of a chain of islands off the coast of arctic Norway. Its skin is riddled with the workings of tens of thousands of pairs of puffins. Where their tunnels are too dense on precipitous slopes, they collapse together in lumps of unshaven turf. The puffins come for the seasonal surplus of sand eels, abundant food for their singular brood in those dark burrows. . In their turn come non-breeding sea-eagles to feed on the puffins. They come not in ones or twos but as motley squadrons of huge birds, not yet mature. This is where they assemble themselves, building their bulk and their eagle skills.
Bleik’s summer is condensed, with long days packed into short months. For sea-eagles this is the place to be, the epitome of easy-pickings as the close-packed puffins just keep on coming in to land; clumsily, all day, day after day. Another clutch of eagles, six this time, rise up as we round the next angle of the island. Ragged wings reluctantly lift them from the rocks. Rolf the skipper and Marten his mate cautiously nudge Laura, their tiny blue fishing boat, around the island. They keep an eye on the weather while they play out polished lines of stories to their six passengers. The guttural names of seabirds, clouds of them, are strung together in German, English and Norwegian, connecting the people on the boat to this old world.
Coming home to Snowdonia.
Eryri, where golden eagles circled and quartered the air above the mountains. Eryri, where eagles linked the land and sky from ancient eyries anchored in cliffs. Where in Eryri did the cry of an eagle sound for the last time? Who on earth would not want to hear that sound? Who would not be thrilled to hear it ring out again, hear it for the first time, hear it again and again?
Picture yourself in Cwm Llafar, Nant Peris, Nant Gwynant – it doesn’t matter where, as long as you are there in your mind’s eye, and looking up. Picture yourself being held in the grip of the eagle’s eye. Feel it take you in and put you in your place. Down there amongst the stones and heather you are just a fragment of its upland empire. The eagle sweeps over and is gone. You stand there speechless and stirred. When at last you walk on you are a bit lighter on your feet, as though the eagle has carried something away.
Back to reality
Such visions, like dreams, can be powerful. But they can also be interpreted in different ways. In another version, the eagle is seen – or thought – to carry away a lamb, or a pheasant or a grouse. Each time that happens the eagle’s grip on Snowdonia is weakened, just as it was in their local extinction two centuries ago. Anyone considering the hard road to reintroducton needs to understand this and to respect the cautions and concerns which underlie it.
In their boat Rolf and Marten supplement their incomes by taking people on trips to see the eagles and the other abundant wildlife. For the cost of their time, they enjoy sharing the knowledge of birds and the sea and their way of life, knowledge that has soaked in over time.
People pressures and prey availability are two of the differences between Bleik and Snowdonia. Those issues are the place to begin to understand what eagles would need; habitat, nesting locations, prey species and prey abundance. How much wild prey must there be to keep losses of livestock to a level that farmers can stomach, and what needs to be in place if it is to work for people who make their living from the land? .
Let them eat cake…
If instead of eagles, our vision was of a delicious cake, we would need first of all to make sure we have the basic ingredients – flour, eggs, butter, sugar and a working oven. Only then could we start to drool over whether it will be lemon drizzle or pear and chocolate.
The vision of eagles returning to the landscapes of Wales could be magnificent – whether golden eagles or white-tailed sea-eagles, or indeed other large and charismatic creatures. Such a vision however demands an immense amount of groundwork to reach a version of Eryri where wildlife is thriving, and where the eagles are welcomed when they come home. To get to that place we have to start from Eryri as it is today. To start with the eagles is to start in the wrong place. We must start from the basic ingredients – the land, its existing habitats and wildlife and its people.
When this reintroduction story broke in the media many people, myself included, were puzzled as to why it has surfaced now. It turns out that there are two contrasting initiatives relevant to eagles in Wales, as explained in this article.