Golden Eagles in Donegal

On Wednesday the 20th of January, Lorcan O’Toole, of the Golden Eagle Trust, gave an interesting talk and PowerPoint presentation, entitled ‘Donegal Raptors and Upland Management’, at McGlinchey’s Field Study Centre, in Sandfield, Ardara. His talk was in two parts, firstly he gave a summary of the how the Golden Eagle reintroduction project is going, and secondly, he gave us a few insights as to how uplands can be managed, not just for Eagles but, for wildlife and farmers in general.

Lorcan explained that the Golden Eagle was native to Ireland and became extinct, due to persecution in 1912. Between 2001 and 2012, 63 Scottish Golden Eagle chicks were released in Donegal and the first unsuccessful breeding attempt was made in the Bluestacks in 2005; the first successful breeding attempt was in 2007. Since 2005 between 1 and 3 pairs per annum have attempted breeding with between 0 and 2 pairs, per annum, managing to fledge a chick; only 11 chicks were fledged since the project began. There are many factors which determine the likelihood of a successful breeding attempt, the experience of the parents or the lack of it, and the weather, to mention just a few. Given the inclement summer we had last year, you will not be surprised to learn that there wasn’t a single successful breeding attempt.

All of the chicks that came from Scotland were raised in captivity. Such birds tend to be less successful with their initial breeding attempts as they did not have a ‘bird mother’ from whom to learn and improve their hunting techniques. Chick-rearing itself, is largely instinctive but parents need to be able to provide enough prey to rear the young.

In general only 60% of fledged birds survive until their first birthday, and only 34% make it to adulthood; but this is in conditions where there is persecution (such as Ireland). We were shown a number of photos of birds that had been poisoned; I felt saddened… it must have been gut-wrenching for Lorcan. Although there have been successes in this project, the Golden Eagle still has an uncertain future in Donegal.

I was completely surprised to notice the remains of Badger and Fox cubs in the nest where chicks were being fed.  Given the diet of the Eagles, it is perhaps not surprising that a few sheep farmers discovered that productivity during the lambing season increased when Eagles were present in the area; Foxes and Grey Crows would normally take a lamb or two but it would appear that the Eagles were managing to control their numbers.

In his talk on Land Management, Lorcan presented census data showing how less accessible areas of the country, such as, west Donegal have experienced a substantial population decline between 1991 and 2011. He also showed data from a Teagasc farm survey which basically showed that most of the economically viable farms, in the Republic; lie to the south of a line, running from the Shannon estuary to County Louth. Part of the problem with farming in places like west Donegal is the amount of rainfall we get; there is no part of Donegal that receives less than a meter of rain each year and, up on the high ground, we get well over 3 meters of rain per annum. We also are subject to high winds from the Atlantic; Lorcan suggested that trees might provide, at least, a partial solution!

In addition to increasing the biodiversity of an area, trees would provide shelter for farm livestock. This could provide a saving for farmers as the amount of feed required to maintain stock in winter, is directly proportional to how exposed they are to the elements – more shelter, less feed required. The planting of native trees would also provide a crop of wood for land owners. So trees improve the diversity of habitats available for wildlife, have livestock welfare benefits, and produce a crop. Similar systems are working well in Norway.

Another benefit is the affect that trees have on the water falling from the sky.

Recent work on upland farms, in Pontbren in Wales, has shown that water penetrates the soil in areas where trees are growing, 60 times more than on adjacent pasture, just 10 meters away. The 10 neighbouring Pontbren farms in the study, cover an area of approximately 1,000 acres, of which, about 5% is covered in hedges and shelterbelts. The strategic planting of shelterbelts seemed to have had a dramatic effect on water infiltration into the soil and substantially reduced runoff. It is thought that the use of such shelter belts might be a tool to help reduce to the rate at which water runs off the land and into river catchments; allowing water to be carried away over a more prolonged period of time, thereby reducing to probability of rivers bursting their banks.

After 15 years of work on the project, the Pontbren farmers claim that Broadleaved woodland and shelterbelts can make the management of upland farms more efficient, make them better places to live for both famer and livestock, and can help to reduce the probability of floods.

On behalf of all the people who attended Lorcan’s talk, thank you for an interesting evening.

Michael Cunningham


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