From Totem to Target: sea eagle distribution and decline


Following the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago, sea eagles became established at sites from Greenland through Eurasia to Japan. However, persecution, loss of habitat and, more recently, pollution have led to a great decline in the numbers of sea eagles across the whole of their range. Although they were lost entirely from several countries, including Britain, they are making an encouraging comeback in some places. Norway has always been a stronghold with over 1,500 pairs.

Earlier times

Sea eagles were once a familiar sight throughout Britain. Their presence has been recorded in ancient art and local folklore . In Orkney, prehistoric peoples may have treated the sea eagle as totemic symbol, regarding it with superstitious respect. Remains Bones of the birds have been found buried together with human remains. This belief may have persisted into the Iron Age for the eagle can be seen in several Pictish carvings. , It also features in Anglo-Saxon poetry where a mention in The Seafarer is thought to refer to the Bass Rock.

During the Dark Ages the sea eagle was firmly established around Britain. However, as the ancient woodlands were felled and wetlands were drained to make way for farms, the area of land suitable for sea eagles declined. Remnant populations then became vulnerable to direct persecution. Predators and so-called vermin could no longer be tolerated on these new farmlands so laws were passed to encourage their destruction. By the end of the eighteenth century only a handful of sea eagles were left in England. A pair of sea eagles nesting on the Isle of Man in 1818 were the amongst the last to be recorded south of the border.

Bounty hunted

The destruction of habitat was much less severe in Scotland and Ireland and even into the nineteenth century sea eagles were still quite plentiful in more remote areas. Here persecution was the greatest threat. Generous bounties were offered for the birds in Orkney and Shetland for example, up to five shillings per head.
In areas where the eyries were relatively accessible, such as Galloway and Orkney, the birds were driven rapidly towards extinction. In more remote areas the number of breeding birds was not affected until the 1840s when a more rapid decline began. By 1900, only a handful of pairs remained.

Towards extinction

This final decline demise was precipitated by the spread of sheep farming in the Western Highlands. Most of the local human population were dispersed to the very coastal areas favoured by sea eagles. Shepherds used poisoned baits and improved firearms to devastating effect. The Victorian passion for taxidermy and egg collecting increased as the birds became rarer and contributed to their final demise. The last known breeding attempt by indigenous sea eagles was on Skye in 1916. Two years later, the only surviving British sea eagle, an ageing albino female, was shot at her lonely outpost in Shetland. It was to be almost 70 years before sea eagles once again bred in Scotland.