Eagles are an essential part of the ecosystem they inhabit. As skilled predators, they sit at the top of the food chain and play an important role in balancing the environment.
The white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) and golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) were once widespread in Ireland, but by the early 20th century the birds of prey were no longer seen soaring in Irish skies. The population decline and subsequent extinction in Ireland was largely due to persecution, in the form of shootings and poisoning.
Thankfully, the story of Ireland’s eagles does not end here. A re-introduction conservation project was rolled out at the beginning of the 21st century. This complex and ongoing project aspires to re-establish resilient self-sustaining breeding populations of both white-tailed eagle and golden eagle, along the west coast of Ireland.
This project was first envisioned over 30 years ago, in 1989 by the Golden Eagle Trust, a charity dedicated to the conservation and restoration of Ireland's native birds and their habitats. Before any eagles were re-introduced onto the Island, scientists performed a detailed study, including evaluation of appropriate habitat in Ireland, population modelling to check the trend of the project’s success, and to determine the amount of individuals required to establish a strong self-sustaining population. Furthermore, Ireland had to meet no fewer than 53 re-introduction guidelines prescribed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
After many years of preparation, suitable habitat for golden eagles was approved in Glenveagh National Park, Co. Donegal. In 2001, twelve eaglets or chicks arrived from Scotland and before being freed into the national park, they were fitted with wing tags and radio transmitters to track their movements. A total of 60 golden eagles have been released and, since breeding began in 2007, twenty Irish-born golden eagle chicks have fledged in Donegal.
Suitable habitat was located for the white-tailed eagles in Killarney National Park, Co. Kerry. From 2007 – 2011, one hundred white-tailed eaglets, hailing from Norway, were released into the national park. To date, there have been 27 Irish-born white-tailed eagle fledglings.
The re-introduction conservation project of eagles in Ireland has had many successes and some setbacks too. Overall, it demonstrates the ability of biodiversity to recover when communities, whether scientific, international or local, work together purposefully. The National Museum of Ireland - Natural History has historical taxidermy of the iconic birds of prey on display in the Irish Room for all to witness up close. A recent acquisition via the Golden Eagle Trust of a golden eagle egg that failed in the nest, is now part of the larger scientific collection, contributing to important scientific research.