Improving biodiversity and the rejuvenation of our natural ecosystems have been at the forefront of conservation efforts of late. These actions play a significant role in our global plans to halt and reverse the effects of climate change. We are re-wilding previously-manicured lawns, bee-bombing roadsides, and generally giving nature some help to settle closer back to its equilibrium. This includes reintroducing species that have disappeared from our ecosystems and re-establishing food chains and symbiotic relationships that were in place for millennia. One particular such effort in Ireland has been the reintroduction of birds of prey to their former habitats.
“Organisms at the top of their food chain play a vital role in the stability of an ecosystem.”
Birds of prey, or raptors, have diets primarily consisting of vertebrates, which differentiates them from other birds. They hunt animals of comparable size to their own and many are considered apex predators within their food chains. These include species such as hawks and eagles. Organisms at the top of their food chain play a vital role in the stability of an ecosystem. They remove weak or older animals from the system, as well as keeping their prey’s population under control, and overall providing balance to a habitat. Though this may sound cruel, top predators like birds of prey have an indispensable role in maintaining the health of an ecosystem.
Birds of prey have always been an element in our biodiversity on this island, and they appear in several old Irish myths and legends. However, several species of birds of prey in Ireland became locally extinct during the 19th and 20th centuries, including the buzzard, golden eagle, red kite and white-tailed eagle. The re-establishment of the Irish populations of these different raptors began with the natural migration of buzzards, who returned to Ireland from the UK. Conscious conservation efforts have been made to re-introduce the other birds of prey species into Ireland since the early 2000s.
The first species to achieve such a resurgence, the buzzard, nests in many forest areas, from mountains to lowlands, but prefers areas that have field spaces as well as woodland. Their diet mainly consists of field mice and other small rodents. Buzzards are often seen circling in the air above wooded areas before diving quickly to the ground and soaring up again. It is one of the most common birds of prey in Europe but the Irish population went into decline throughout the 1800s. No buzzards were present on the island of Ireland in the early 20th century.
This changed in 1933, when a pair of buzzards migrated and bred in County Antrim. These buzzards most likely migrated from the UK, and were the catalyst for a gradual recovery in their Irish population. The process was slow, but more buzzards began moving southwards to breed over the next few decades. The number of buzzards was seen to increase during the 1980s, but it was during the 1990s that the population really began to expand their range of habitats and re-establish their presence. The species is now most common in Donegal, Monaghan and Louth, but is found throughout the country.
Unlike the buzzard, species like the golden eagle, red kite and white-tailed eagle have required reintroduction programmes to re-establish their populations in Ireland, which has been met with varying levels of success. The white-tailed eagle is the biggest resident raptor in Ireland, with a one-metre wingspan. They prefer to nest on rocky coasts, at large inland lakes or along watercourses. The same nesting site is used every year and is expanded annually. They mainly eat fish and waterbirds, and hunt by plucking the prey out of the water with their talons. A skilled adult white-tailed eagle may even hunt animals such as herons or geese. The last known wild breeding pair in Ireland—before their reintroduction—nested in County Mayo in 1912.
The golden eagle is the second-largest bird of prey in Ireland. Pairs of golden eagles often remain in an established territory, but their young that have recently fledged the nest can travel a great distance. Golden eagles eat a varied diet including hares, rabbits, amphibians, reptiles and insects. They will also eat carrion and have been known to also take young livestock such as lambs or kid goats. Both the golden and white tailed eagle became extinct in Ireland during the early 20th century, and their decline and eventual extinction stemmed largely from shooting and poisoning by humans.
“Golden eagles have faced challenges, including deaths due to poisoned carrion, which has restricted their range still to the north of Ireland.”
When population re-establishment efforts began for both species in 1989, there were steps that had to be taken before any re-introduction attempts commenced. These included finding suitable release sites in good habitats, and figuring out how many eagles were needed to establish a self-sustaining breeding population. Twelve golden eagle chicks, originally from Scotland, were released in Glenveagh National Park in County Donegal in 2001. Now, sixty eaglets overall have been released, and breeding between them began occurring in 2007. Twenty Irish-born chicks have reached adulthood and successfully left the nest since. However, these golden eagles have faced challenges, including deaths due to poisoned carrion. These challenges have at present restricted the range of the golden eagles still to the north of Ireland.
Killarney National Park, County Kerry was identified as a suitable area for the release of white-tailed eagle chicks. One hundred eaglets, from Norway, were released between 2007 and 2011. The white-tailed eagle has achieved a wider range than its golden cousins, across Cork, Kerry, Tipperary, Clare and Galway, with at least 31 Irish-born chicks fledging. Unfortunately, at least thirteen white-tailed eagles have been poisoned since their re-introduction. The birds themselves are not always targeted, but are killed when they eat the dead remains of crows or foxes that were illegally poisoned. A second phase for the white-tailed eagle reintroduction was launched in 2020 and a further ten Norwegian chicks were released at Killarney National Park, Lough Derg and the Shannon Estuary. The process was in 2021 and 2022 to aid for the eagle population to stabilise enough to be able to survive disease outbreaks or bad weather conditions during the breeding season.
Reintroduction efforts are also ongoing for the red kite. During the late 19th century the red kite went extinct in Ireland and across most of the UK, because of killing by humans and loss of habitat. The red kite nests in the highest trees along the edges of wooded areas and will often use the abandoned nests of other raptors. Adapting somewhat to our changing world, they have been observed lining their nests with plastic bags, clothing and even children’s toys. They feed on insects, frogs, lizards, rodents, small birds and sometimes fish and carrion. During the winter, the red kite likes to roost in flocks. A total of 120 red kites, originating from Wales, have been released in County Wicklow since 2007. The population is slowly spreading out from a centre based around Dublin and Wicklow, despite the setbacks of windy and rainy summer breeding season weather destroying nests.
Considerable effort, planning and patience are required to re-establish Irish raptor populations and reap the biodiversity benefits. It has been a slow and hard-fought battle to repair damage caused by human influence, and it will be some time before we see the positive impacts their re-establishment at the top of the food chain should have. The efforts to re-introduce and protect these raptor populations are, however, beginning to rectify the extinction of several raptor species in Ireland, and this is certainly good news for us, other wildlife and the world we live in.