Highlands & Islands

Tourists keeping an eagle eye on Harris

Image copyright Laurie Campbell
Image caption A Golden Eagle is top of the must-see list for most visitors to Harris

"They all want to see an eagle, an otter, and a seal."

Sitting in the office where she and her husband run an self-catering holiday business, Rhoda Campbell tells me every guest who comes to stay at their cottages at Scarista on the Harris coast has the same must-see list of priorities.

As he listens to our conversation Neil Campbell browses through the Sightings Book they encourage all their visitors to fill in.

One couple who stayed for just four days in December last year have recorded that they saw two Golden Eagles on their very first walk, on the first day of their holiday.

It's just one of a growing number of eco-tourism businesses catering to people who visit the Outer Hebrides to enjoy their rugged beauty and amazing wild-life.

But there is a potential problem.

"One thing people consistently say is that there's not enough to do", Neil Campbell told me.

Image caption The building's wood cladding and turf roof should blend it into the hillside

So the couple have welcomed an initiative by North Harris Trust - a community group which owns the North Harris and Seaforth estates - to open a Golden Eagle observatory, some seven miles or so north-west of Tarbert.

The site is in a spectacular glacial valley, at Glen Meavaig, with big cliffs and high hills on both sides.

Ranger Robin Reid told me it is in the heart of prime Golden Eagle territory.

"It's open, relatively treeless, landscape with lots of hunting territory. Pretty undisturbed."

"Not a lot of people in and around nest sites in this area, so there's lots of secluded places for them to nest."

"And also there hasn't been a history of persecution (of raptors) here, like there has been in other parts of Scotland."

The other big difference from mainland Scotland is the absence of predator mammals, such as foxes.

Image caption Wildlife ranger Robin Reid scans the skies, looking for eagles

That makes the Golden Eagles and Sea Eagles top of the tree - not that there are many trees in the Western Isles.

And it all helps to make Harris one of the best places in Europe to see the birds.

And when you do see them, I'm told, it's an unforgettable experience.

Jeff Edwards moved to Leverburgh at the southern end of Harris eleven years ago.

He's run Golden Eagle walks in the past. And he's about to start them up again.

He says he has about a 70% success rate at finding birds to show to his customers. So he's seen Golden Eagles dozens - perhaps hundreds - of times.

But, he told me, "I don't think I'd ever get blasé about seeing them. The bird is such a magnificent animal."

"The female has at least a 7ft wingspan. I can only describe the wings as looking like scaffolding boards, with fingers on the ends of them."

Image caption Rhoda and Neil Campbell welcome eco-tourists to the Outer Hebrides

"It's just an awesome sight, every time you see them. They are magnificent."

But back in the North Harris hills, Robin Reid and I have been scanning the skies for nearly two hours. And we haven't seen even the hint of an eagle. Not a glint of a golden brown feather against the moorland.

Admittedly the mist has been pretty high, the cloud pretty low, and the rain pretty persistent the whole time.

"The weather has been against us, and we've been unlucky", Robin explained.

"On a good day, I'd be confident that we'd see them. But that's the nature of wildlife watching. They're wild birds, and they can be elusive."

"If you went to a zoo, you'd have a guarantee that you'd see them. But you wouldn't have the excitement of watching a wild bird."

The hope is that tourists who want to share that excitement will start to think of Harris as one of the destinations of choice; that the observatory will enhance the experience they have in the Hebrides; and that the money they spend will help to sustain the island's fragile human communities.

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