Farmers back plan to reintroduce white-tailed eagle to Norfolk

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A consultation has been launched to reintroduce Britain’s biggest bird of prey to Norfolk in an unprecedented rewilding move led by farmers.

Supported by other landowners in the region, a west Norfolk farm wants to release white-tailed eagles on to its coastal land, after the successful reintroduction of the birds in western Scotland and the Isle of Wight.

While those reintroductions were led by conservation organisations, this release is proposed by the Ken Hill Estate, an innovative farm which has reinstated beavers in fenced areas and is farming crops in a “regenerative” system to restore soils and wildlife.

A previous attempt to bring back the eagles to East Anglia 10 years ago was abandoned after strong opposition from outdoor pig farmers, who feared the presence of the birds, which can have a wingspan of up to 2.4 metres (8ft), would cause sows to abort, but this time more than 20 landowners, farmers and countryside organisations are backing the bid. One of Norfolk’s leading pig farmers, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “We support Ken Hill’s white-tailed eagle project and hope it goes ahead.”

Dominic Buscall, manager of the Ken Hill Estate, said: “We are bringing forward these proposals not only to reinstate this native bird to its former range, but also to inspire people with nature and drive wider nature recovery in East Anglia”.

He added: “It is vitally important that we give local people and interests a meaningful opportunity to have their say on these proposals – that is why we are launching the public consultation and asking people to learn more about the project and take our survey”.

The white-tailed eagle was hunted to extinction in England 240 years ago, with the last British bird shot in Shetland in 1918. After chicks were brought to Scotland from Norway in the 1970s, it took several decades before the birds bred and expanded their range.

In 2019, juvenile white-tailed eagles were returned to the Isle of Wight, a five-year reintroduction scheme which has been widely praised, with no adverse effects on farmers reported and eagles sighted roaming across southern England.

One of the satellite-tagged Isle of Wight eagles has spent more than five months since August in west Norfolk, with the bird recorded feeding on gulls and eating from deer carcasses and other carrion. There have been no recorded instances of it preying on livestock.

In Scotland, there are now about 130 breeding pairs and although the eagles have boosted tourism, some Highland farmers and crofters have reported losses of lambs. In Scotland, farmers can obtain licences to take measures such as diversionary feeding or using scaring devices to deter birds from young livestock.

Ken Hill’s reintroduction bid is supported by the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, a conservation charity also overseeing the ongoing Isle of Wight reintroduction.

Roy Dennis, 80, who has played a key role in the recovery of white-tailed eagles and other endangered raptors in Britain, said: “This is the next logical step to restore this magnificent bird to England and complements efforts across Europe to help the species. The initial results from the Isle of Wight project, and evidence from across lowland Europe shows that this is a bird that can live successfully alongside people.”

Mark Bridgeman, president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), said: “It is vital that the full range of potential impacts on local businesses and communities, as well as local ecology, is understood before any project progresses.

“We are in the process of studying the Ken Hill proposals and will be guided by the views of members in the area. Affected landowners must have an opportunity to engage at an early stage with any consultation and to ensure that good practice is followed.”

Under the proposed plan, which is now subject to an online consultation, six to 12 juvenile birds would be released in Norfolk each year for five years, with the aim of producing a breeding population by the end of the decade, with birds likely to spread around the Wash into Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire.

For the reintroduction to proceed, the project must receive approval from Natural England, the government’s conservation watchdog, which will assess the views of local people and interests alongside the environmental merits of the proposal.

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