Golden eagles 'can return to south of Scotland'

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Experts say attempts to increase the Golden Eagle population in the Scottish Borders is dependent on making the environment safer for them

The south of Scotland could once again become a stronghold for golden eagles, a new report suggests.

The study has also raised the possibility of the species returning in large numbers to the north of England.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has said habitat changes could see southern Scotland support 16 breeding pairs.

Experts believe only one or two pairs currently attempt to breed in Galloway each year and no more than three pairs in the Scottish Borders.

The total Scottish golden eagle population is 440 pairs, with most of the birds to be found in the Highlands and Islands.

Prof Des Thompson of SNH, who led the research, said: "We would now like to see on-the-ground, practical work to improve the habitat for golden eagles in the south of Scotland.

"With habitat improvements, we could see connections with the small reintroduced population in Ireland.

"This would help both groups of eagles and could even help bolster the population in the north of England."

Researchers studied a number of factors that could affect eagle numbers.

'Magnificent bird'

These included climatic conditions, illegal persecution, wind farms and woodland cover.

Environment and climate change minister Paul Wheelhouse welcomed the report.

He said: "It is great news that south Scotland could support so many pairs of golden eagles.

"We will work hard to ensure they are given the best possible chance to expand their population and range, given the region contains habitat that we would expect to sustain a greater population of this most magnificent bird."

However, there has been a warning that illegal persecution continues to threaten the golden eagle population.

RSPB Scotland's head of investigations, Ian Thomson, said: "The poisoning of the female from a breeding pair of golden eagles in Peebles-shire in 2007 drew everybody's attention to this.

"We also had a bird shot near Wanlockhead just a couple of years ago.

"The poisoning, trapping and shooting of these birds, and other species, simply must stop."

Natural heritage

Organisations that represent Scotland's landowners and gamekeepers condemn the illegal persecution of birds of prey but dispute the extent of the problem.

Scottish Land and Estates chief executive Douglas McAdam said: "Where persecution may have been a historical factor, it is clear from the official government data - published alongside our partners in PAW Scotland in March - that the number of such incidents has dropped significantly in recent years.

"However, everyone remains resolute that where persecution exists it must be eradicated.

"Golden Eagles are iconic Scottish birds, adding greatly to Scotland's natural landscape and welcomed by estates as part of our natural heritage.

"This study will add greatly to our understanding of what limits the presence of these magnificent birds and should therefore help us to understand how best they can be conserved."

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