By Denis O’Connor

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

LOOKING from our Otley front windows down the valley towards Ilkley Moor red kites are almost ever present, sometimes joined by buzzards with both species occasionally spiralling upwards in the same thermal.

Twenty years ago, that these two large raptors would be sharing Otley’s skies was almost unthinkable so their presence is a welcome sign that attitudes to large birds of prey are becoming more tolerant.

Now moves are afoot to reintroduce much larger avian hunters to the English countryside with the release of six young white-tailed sea eagles on the Isle of Wight as part of a five year programme, with the hope that they will re-colonise the south coast, from which they were wiped out in 1780.

They were brought back to Scotland in 1975 with 82 young eagles from Norway released on the island of Rhum over a ten year period. The programme has been so successful that the Scottish population is now considered self-sustaining with over 120 pairs.

They have also been reintroduced to Ireland with 95 released from 2005, again stocked from Norway. Ireland now has ten breeding pairs.

There are proposals to reintroduce the eagles to Wales and maybe to Cumbria. Plans by Natural England to bring them back to East Anglia in 2006 fell foul of local opposition and funding cuts but could be resurrected.

I became familiar with them on a trip to northern Norway this year, where I took the accompanying photo and where they are common along the fjord edges where they feed on fish, seabirds, ducks and carrion.

They inspire panic in potential prey and on one occasion we witnessed pandemonium when two passing eagles flew by a kittiwake colony.

On a small lake we watched a red-throated diver submerging repeatedly to escape harassment from three eagles. Other eagles flew in, like vultures attracted to a kill, until there were seven involved in the hunt. We did not witness the conclusion but the technique used is standard eagle practice against diving birds, forcing them to dive until exhausted.

However these immensely powerful birds do at times have to give way. We visited an inland cliff with two huge eagle nests. On one was a sitting eagle, on the other a pair of gyr falcons which will drive off an eagle which tries to reassert ownership.

As their English population expands it would be wonderful to think that eventually we might again see these majestic eagles gracing Yorkshire skies. They would certainly add interest to a walk round the Washburn Valley reservoirs!