White Tailed Eagles in Dorset, and MP Chris Loder’s odd tweets
The strange case of the death of two translocated sea eagles, and the MP who doesn’t want this crime investigated.
As a bit of a raptor fan, living on the south coast is a disadvantage. We don't have many big raptors in our area, and we'd have to be lucky to catch, say, an osprey on migration. And so, it's tremendously exciting for us as a family to know that there are two local projects — the Isle of Wight White Tailed Eagle reintroduction scheme, and the Poole Harbour Osprey translocation project — bringing these magnificent birds to southern England.
Both projects had a good year in 2021, but 2022 has started with bad news for the sea eagles:
Now, at the time of writing we don't know how they died. But the idea of “multi-agency operations” suggests that they might have been intentionally killed. This has been a big problem in Scotland, to the point where the Scottish government has been increasing penalties for raptor persecution. Most right-thinking people would be shocked that it's spread to England, too.
But not, curiously, one Dorset MP. Rather than expressing his horror at the death of these protected birds, he leapt to… tell the police to stay out of it…?
Loder's loaded Tweets
Now, first of all, let's look at the obvious problem with his tweet: these birds are not being reintroduced to Dorset — they're being reintroduced into the Isle of Wight. They're going to stray over to his county, sure — but these birds fly a long way. They can range the length of the country — and we already have sea eagles in Scotland. They will, eventually, spread on their own.
Also, it's slightly odd for a law-maker to be calling for crimes to be ignored… Perhaps Loder is following his party leader, PM Boris Johnson, in treating laws as rather optional.
The WCO strikes back
More to the point, does he not realise that the police have specific people dedicated to wildlife crime? It's not the same people who are working on, say, drug crime. They're not pulling local bobbies off the beat to investigate raptor killings. It's specialist Wildlife Crime Officers (WCOs).
Still, he's probably aware now:
Fake News from Mr Loder
However, Loder chose to double down with a tweet showing white tailed eagles taking lambs, illustrated with three photos:
The problem? Two of the photos were staged. They're not real:
And that's been confirmed by the original photographer:
Will sea eagles eat lambs?
The third photo — the flying eagle one — is genuine. And it's source is this Sky News article:
But it's interesting to note that even the photographer saw how unusual this was:
"We then realised it was a lamb — and I rattled off a load of shots. The bird was struggling. It is the most extraordinary sight have had so far."
A lamb is on the top end of the prey range for a sea eagle. They're opportunist hunters, who often eat fish (the sea in their name is a clue…), small birds or carrion.
There's some evidence to support them taking lambs in Scotland, though:
While most studies have suggested that they take very few lambs (less than 2% of deaths among lambs were linked to eagles in one study, even where the birds were common), a report from Scottish Natural Heritage in 2019 showed that there can potentially be conflict.
Scottish farmers are actively campaigning against them, but often on deeply anecdotal evidence. One study found evidence of only a single killing of a lamb by an eagle, but rather more of eagles scavenging lambs that had died in other ways. There's an on-going scheme to investigate and mitigate the impacts of white tailed eagles on farmers.
So, it seems odd that an MP is making such a fuss about an issue whose impact is uncertain in a country with over 100 breeding pairs, when his county had no breeding pairs, and a tiny handful of visitors.
What else could be going on here?
The Shooting Issue
Now, whatever would make an MP wade into the issue in this way? The Guardian's Helena Horton has an idea:
Loder’s 2019 election campaign benefited from a £14,000 donation from the Ilchester Estates, which runs shoots in his constituency. Those who run shoots are often opposed to birds of prey being in the area, as when they fly over a shoot, the birds scatter, disappointing those who paid to kill them. They also occasionally predate on game birds.
At first glance, perhaps Mr Loder's obsession with this topic becomes a little more explicable…
However, he denies that the shooting has anything to do with his stance:
Loder told the Guardian he did not feel he was influenced by the money from the estate, and his distaste for eagles in his constituency was because he had fears for their impact on farming.
Whatever his motives — and we can't know for sure — what worries me is that he's expressing the exact same sentiments that led to these magnificent creatures being hunted to extinction within the UK. They're a threat to livestock, or are impacting on our hunting pleasure, so they must go. And they went, entirely because of us humans:
They are a missing part of England’s native biodiversity and were lost entirely through human activities, particularly intense persecution.
We like to tell ourselves that we learn from the mistakes of the past, and even that we can correct them. But human nature is what it is, and perhaps some battles will never be entirely won. Perhaps my daughters will have to fight for the safety of these awesome birds, long after I've passed away.
The joy of sea eagles
Thankfully, though, most people are taking joy in the return of these awesome predators to our skies, as this tweet beautifully illustrates:
The past half a century has seen huge strides in conserving and restoring our wildlife. I grew up seeing egg collectors as the enemy, but now they are increasingly rare, thanks to changes in the law — and the hobby becoming socially unacceptable. In fact, Google searches for egg collecting throws up mainly cute family trips to collect chickens' eggs for breakfast…
The People Strike Back
And, if I was to look for hope in all this, it's that some people took such exception to Loder's remarks, that they donated to the work of the Roy Dennis Foundation:
Perhaps we can learn from history, after all.
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