The golden eagle, once native to nearly the entire Northern hemisphere, has lost most of its range. The IUCN estimates there to be between 170,00 and 250,000 of the large predatory birds left in the world, completely extirpated from much of their former ranges. But a new estate in Scotland is helping to restore the population of this severely endangered bird of prey.

In Scotland, the golden eagle is critically endangered. A 2015 survey found only 508 breeding pairs. Since the dawn of firearm sports hunting, golden eagles have been considered a pest, killing grouse and pheasant populations that are being managed for hunting. Interfering with a golden eagle or its nest has been illegal since the 1970s, but according to conservation groups, there has never been a prosecution for such a crime, even though it is undoubtedly still occurring.

“The Scottish government has known about the persecution of golden eagles on grouse moors for decades. It has kicked it into the long grass,” Ruth Tingay of the advocacy group Raptor Persecution UK told the BBC. “The case has been made; there is huge public support, and there has been every opportunity to legislate. It’s clear the industry can’t self-regulate.”

Various raptor conservation groups have been tagging golden eagles, and a 2017 study reported a suspicious percentage of disappearances – 41 out of 131, or 31 percent – of tagged adult birds have disappeared between 2004 and 2016. The majority of the golden eagle disappearances included a last contact in or around areas managed for grouse shooting.

“It’s in the nature of a young eagle to be nomadic,” said Ian Thompson, head of investigations at the Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB) Scotland. “They go all over Scotland, right up to the Inner Hebrides, then when they travel to the grouse moors in the East, they disappear mysteriously. … It’s a real stain on the reputation of a country that likes to portray itself as one of wild natural beauty.”

Repopulating golden eagles is a tricky business, as they’re selective about breeding sites. “Rewilding” estates, such as Trees for Life Dundreggan estate in the Highlands, are seeing their first chicks this year after half a decade of natural rehabilitation, a process which involved tree planting, deer population control, and the reintroduction of a dozen species of prey birds.

There has been a recorded increase in black grouse, an important food species for golden eagles.

“I feel elated. Absolutely amazing. To have done a little bit of management, and to have a wild bird decide it’s a good place to be, and produce a chick, then it’s wonderful,” said Dundreggan Estate Manager Doug Gilbert, who described the birth of the chicks on the estate as a “rewilding success story beyond our wildest dreams.”

Photo: A female golden eagle with her 2-week-old chick. Credit: Shutterstock