As It Happens

Golden eagles breed at Scottish estate for 1st time in decades thanks to an artificial nest

Trees for Life, a Scottish conservation charity, announced that the eagle chick flew from the nest for the first time recently at their Dundreggan rewilding estate, located in the Scottish Highlands.

Conservationist Roy Dennis helped build the nest in 2015 on the side of a cliff

An adult female golden eagle flies into a nest site with a small branch at Cairngorms National Park in Scotland. The species' population has been making a slow recovery in Scotland. (Mark Hamblin/


A pair of golden eagles have reared a chick at a conservation site in Scotland for the first time in 40 years.

The project to entice the birds to start breeding at the Dundreggan rewilding estate started in 2015, when a team of volunteers, including renowned conservationist Roy Dennis built an artificial nest, called an eyrie, on the side of a cliff. 

"[I'm] very pleased, indeed, and surprised in some ways it has taken so long," Dennis told As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong.

"But if you don't try, then you don't get them to come back to areas where they've been lost." 

Trees for Life, a Scottish conservation charity, announced the news and said that the eagle chick recently flew from the nest for the first time.

"Four decades without golden eagles breeding or establishing themselves in this part of our wild and beautiful Highland glen have been four decades too long," Doug Gilbert, Trees for Life's Dundreggan manager, said in a press release. 

Roy Dennis, left, collects sticks to build an artificial nest at the Dundreggan Rewilding Estate in Scotland. (Submitted by Roy Dennis)

Dennis says he chose the eyrie's location after spotting remains of an old nest that had probably not been used in 50 to 60 years.

He says he had to descend 15 to 18 metres down the side of a cliff in order to build it. 

"A tree had grown up in front of it. So I cut the tree out and then we made a really good nest," Dennis said. "I knew it would be used, but I didn't know how long it would take."

Gilbert called the project a "rewilding success story beyond our wildest dreams."

Roy Dennis, seen here in a blue helmet in 2015, describes descending 15 to 18 metres down the side of a cliff in order to build a nest that would attract golden eagles. (Submitted by Roy Dennis)

"We've been keeping our fingers crossed for the past five years, and it's wonderful that our efforts have paid off like this," he said.

Threats to golden eagle population

Golden eagles are native to Britain, but were driven into extinction in England and Wales by the mid-1800s after centuries of threats to their existence.

To this day, there are continued reports of golden eagles being shot, poisoned or having their nests robbed, according to Trees for Life.

The species has been making a slow recovery in Scotland. A national survey published in 2016 showed that Scotland's population of golden eagles had increased to 508 pairs, a rise of 15 per cent since the previous survey in 2003, the group said.

Dennis, who has been working in conservation in Scotland for six decades, says that a lot of golden eagles have been killed illegally over the years.

The golden eagle is the U.K.'s second largest birds of prey, after the white-tailed eagle. They are about 66 to 102 centimetres in length, with a wingspan between 1.8 to 2.34 metres. (Submitted by Roy Dennis)

"In the '70s and '80s, with an increase in professional game keepers who did not like eagles, the population was dropping," Dennis said. "[Now] they're doing well, but they are still being killed illegally in some places." 

He pointed to the hunting of red grouse, one the golden eagles' sources of food, as a hurdle in conserving the predator bird species.

He said that the hunt is a big business in some areas, so landowners will illegally kill golden eagles to protect the shooting sport.

According to a report from Scottish Natural Heritage, between 2004 and 2016, almost a third of eagles they had been tracking disappeared under suspicious circumstances.

"That's a disgrace to Scotland and our parliament is trying to solve it, but solving and preventing crime in the countryside, especially in remote countryside, is very difficult," Dennis said. 

His next project, which he's working on through his own Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, aims to re-introduce a population of white-tailed eagles, the U.K.'s largest bird of prey, to the Isle of Wight, an island off the south coast of England. 

Young golden eagles are typically darker and have a white band on the base and tail as well as white patches on their wings. Adult golden eagles are dark brown with a golden head. (Submitted by Roy Dennis)

He says that encouraging the reproduction of birds like the golden eagle is "an icon of us having a healthy environment."

He said Trees for Life is also making wider ecological efforts, like working to restore woodland cover.

"What we're trying to [do] is that we get ecological restoration widespread, so that we're producing oxygen, we're holding carbon in the soil, we're slowing down erosion of rivers," Dennis said.

"We're starting to recognise that humans and wildlife need good, healthy, wild places." 

Written by Althea Manasan. Interview with Roy Dennis produced by Katie Geleff.

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