Spirit of the mountainsPublished: 26th March 2019
Romany Garnett pays homage to the golden eagle – the creature that perhaps more than any other symbolises Scotland’s wildest landscapes
Silhouetted against the sky as it soars above a mountain peak, wing tips splayed, the golden eagle is an awe inspiring sight. Majestic in slow motion, the two-metre wingspan gives the flight a steadiness and power that is matchless. Its hunting prowess has been honed over centuries, driven by instinctive wisdom.
Everything about this bird is impressive. Sharp eyes that are focused and intense. A beak with a yellow base that hooks round to a grey-black tip. The velocity at which it hurtles through the sky when hunting. The powerful clutch of the talons. A wildness whose depth is hard to fathom.
To understand the eagle more intimately is to immerse oneself in the wildest, remotest uplands, far from human habitation. In these sweeping, bleak areas of bog and open moorland, where wind-clipped vegetation clings to the mountain tops and all vestiges of civilisation are absent – here dwells the golden eagle.
Nature writer Jim Crumley describes the creature as “the spirit of the high and lonely places.” They are substantial birds, with the females averaging 5kg and males slightly less at 3.5kg. Yet they have a deceptive lightness. In his book, The Eagles Way, Crumley observes one bird, which, as if lifted on a breath, “soars on unbeating wings, gains fifty feet in a moment and drifts away east, still climbing.”
Their sharp eyes, eight times more precise than a human’s, can pinpoint a flicker in the grass from great distances. They tilt back their wings and can reach over 100mph as they take the fearsome plunge towards their target. Their diet varies between areas and seasons. When food is scarce they rely on carrion. In the spring and summer, live prey is more common and can include field mice, pigeons, ptarmigans, fox cubs, mountain hares and deer calves.
Their territories, whose range can vary from 50 to 150 sq km, are defended fiercely – especially during the breeding season – by a pair of eagles. Their area often overlaps with others and at certain times of year they can tolerate shared hunting ground. “It seemed to me that their territories had more to do with wind direction than physical boundaries,” says Crumley.
Moray-based author, lecturer and broadcaster Roy Dennis is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the golden eagle. Director and founder of the international Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, he has for decades specialised in raptor conservation, and has been involved with reintroductions of osprey, red kite and sea eagle. In 1982, while working for the RSBP, he was one of two organisers who helped carry out the first full survey of golden eagles in Scotland. “We needed to know how many eagles there were. We counted 424 pairs. The most recent survey, two years ago, found about 500 pairs.” Although this should be a cause for optimism, Roy says that “there is a lot more work to do – in my view, Britain as a whole should have at least 1,000 pairs, maybe more, including on low ground.”
The golden eagle is at the top of the food chain and has no natural predators – so that shortfall is mainly due to human activity, such as egg collecting, poisoning and other forms of persecution. Roy recalls one incident when he helped recover a golden eagle chick which had been stolen and taken to England. “We knew the nest the chick had come from and brought it back nearly three weeks later. And the parents came and fed it.”
Unfortunately, not all such crimes have a happy ending. In 2007, Roy’s foundation fitted its first GPS satellite tracker to a chick at Glenfeshie in the Cairngorms National Park. “Alma, as we called her, was found poisoned two years later in Angus.” Since then, the satellite tracking programme has helped reduce persecution by pinpointing what Roy calls “black holes” where raptors tended to disappear. “From tracking, we could see the places where the young birds were going. What became evident to us were black holes, where adults were being killed by illegal persecution. Young eagles would then go into these places because of the absence of competition. So, as one was killed, another would move in.”
The tracking programme, Roy believes, helped influence policy and legislation, including the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011, which introduced ‘vicarious liability’, making landowners responsible for illegal persecution carried out by gamekeepers. “There is definitely less persecution now from small-scale land managers; this is quite noticeable,” says Roy – although he believes that on some grouse moors the problem is as serious as ever, aggravated by the use of specialised equipment and rifles with night sights.
Satellite tracking is also helping protect eagles by getting the public more involved. People have been able to follow individual birds via a map-based website, so there is a growing public interest in the golden eagle and the threats it faces. Tracking has also helped us better understand what Roy calls the “cultural behaviour” of the golden eagle, including their distribution and flight paths. The project has discovered that golden eagles that have grown up in places where they can see people walking may be more likely to breed near where people live. “And from tracking, we have learned that they move around more than we had previously thought.” Yet surprisingly, none of Roy’s satellite-tracked birds has ever been to the Hebrides – which he says suggests “there is clearly a divide between the eagles here and those in the Hebrides.”
So when are the best times to see the golden eagle in its full glory? Because they rarely eat where they kill, preferring instead to carry their prey to a favourite place, they are elusive. Their eyries – which can be a massive confusion of sticks and heather as yearly repairs are piled on top of the old ones – are usually balanced near the edges of inaccessible cliffs and crags. They spend most of their time perching, and their deep brown plumage and paler golden feathers around the back of the neck help them blend into the landscape.
Early spring is the best time to watch their spectacular courting displays. The fullness of flight can then be watched with awe as every fibre is used to tear through the sky. It’s always a special moment on Quinag when I see one soaring overhead. It feels like a privilege to live alongside these creatures. Golden eagles awaken in our imagination a faint desire to be more like them, to be more primal and wild.
From an eagle’s viewpoint, all our trappings of modernity and civilisation appear suddenly futile. They have a special quality that is created by living in the harshest of climates and the most remote places. They have a resilience almost mystical in essence. The qualities in the golden eagle are those that we as humans lack and perhaps the golden eagle, above any other creature, symbolises what it is to be wild and free. As Jim Crumley writes: “They inhabit the world, this three-dimensional territory, with a mastery of airspace as utter as any creature that ever drew breath.”