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Wild Life in the West Highlands

IF we look at the history of this country of ours there is vividly presented to us the fact of constant change taking place in all things, animate or inanimate. We know, for instance, that the greater part of Scotland was once clothed with dense forest, of which here and there a remnant only remains; much that is now fertile field or broad pasture was but recently bleak or impassable morass. These changes, together with the steady advance of what we call civilisation, bring in their train corresponding changes in the wild inhabitants of the land. Some old world creatures, such as the bear, the beaver, the boar, have long since passed away; some more familiar forms known to our fathers have already gone from us; and some that are still with us, but in ever-diminished numbers, are apparently on the very verge of extinction.

In this latter category one noble bird stands out prominently as being intimately associated with our own West Highlands - the whitetailed eagle, otherwise known as the sea eagle or erne; in scientific nomenclature Haliaetus albicilla.

This eagle is widely distributed, being found throughout the Palaearctic region as far as Japan and Kamtchatka in the East, and down through China and India to Northern Africa; but is not found in America. It is at once to be distinguished from its congener, the golden eagle, by the light creamy colour of head and neck and the pure white tail ; that is, in the adult bird; in immature specimens these marks of difference are wanting, the bird being more or less mottled all over with lighter and darker brown markings ; but the species can at all times be distinguished by the fact that in the sea eagle the tarsus is bare, whereas in the golden eagle it is feathered down to the toes.

It is essentially a bird of the sea coast, though sometimes found inland, and is decidedly omnivorous in its diet. Nothing seems to come amiss to it; but it appears to live largely on the flotsam and jetsam-dead fish or any carrion -thrown up by the waves, on dead sheep, or indeed anything it can find or capture. It is impossible, however, to acquit it of committing mischief by carrying off young or sickly lambs; and it is doubtless owing to the unceasing warfare waged against the eagles by the sheep farmers, and in perhaps a lesser degree the keepers in the interest of game, that this species, so recently a marked feature in the bird life of the West Highlands, is now verging on extinction. The rise and rapid spread of the sheep-farming industry in Scotland has been the cause of many changes and the disturbance of many ancient conditions ; and so the erne is but sharing the fate of all that obstructs the march of our restless and ruthless modern times.

In comparatively recent days the sea eagle was a much commoner species than the golden eagle. Gray I says: `Being a much commoner bird in Scotland than the golden eagle, the sea eagle has never been at any time in the same danger of extinction. Even in 1867 and 1868 there were numerous eyries in places which they have occupied from time immemorial. Between Loch Brittle and Copnahow Head, in Skye, for example, nine or ten eyries might have been seen. The Isle of Skye, indeed, may be said to be the headquarters of this conspicuous eagle in the West of Scotland, the entire coast line of that magnificent country offering many attractions to a bird of its habits. Nearly all the bold headlands of Skye are frequented by at least one pair of sea eagles, and it is at no time a difficult matter to get a sight of them.... on one property alone there were recently six breeding places.' But to this passage there is subjoined the following significant note:

`It is impossible, however, to conceal the fact that if the present destruction of eagles continues, we shall soon have to reckon this species among the extinct families of our " feathered nobility." During the last nine years, says my friend Dr. Dewar, a keeper in Skye has shot fifty-seven eagles on a single estate; and in a letter addressed to myself in November, 1866, by a keeper resident in the west of Ross-shire, the confession is made that during an experience of twelve years, he had shot no less than fifty-two eagles, besides taking numbers of eggs and young.

'Captain Cameron of Glen Brittle also informed me he has now seen as many as sixty-two sea eagles killed in Skye. No species of eagle could long survive such persecution.'

In Orkney they were, about the same date, a very common species. Harvie-Brown and Buckley, in the Orkney volume of their monumental series on the Vertebrate Fauna of Scotland, give this ,note as received by them from Mr. Moodie-Heddle in 1888:

'White-tailed eagles were very common in Hoy, there being at one time ten or twelve pairs on the sea cliffs. He thought that they became extinct through being continually robbed, - the old birds at last became too old to breed; he never heard of many being killed.'

In the Argyll volumes of the above-mentioned series it is stated that in 1867 the sea eagle had become scarce in Mull; while at the time of writing, 1892, they were considered as being extinct as a breeding species. No doubt in the winter months many 'individuals may be seen there, as in other parts of the West Highland sea-coast area ; but these are, doubtless, migratory birds, some perhaps coming from the north of Europe. Such wandering eagles are met with now and then even in far inland localities, and not in Scotland only, but as far as the south of England. This migratory habit seems to afford the only hope that even yet some of the ancient eyries might again be used as breeding stations if only some of our larger proprietors would see fit to afford them protection ; finding in the grand spectacle of these noble birds sufficient repayment for the loss of an odd grouse or hare or sickly lamb; but past experience hardly bids us hope for this.

The following notes on the white-tailed eagle are taken from a hitherto unpublished MS. of the late Edward R. Alston, F.L.S., secretary of the Linnean Society, and written about thirty years ago:

'This species seems now to be extinct in the Glencoe district. The well-known nest in a rowan tree on Loch Ba has not been used for several years. First the female was poisoned,the male found another mate,-but both met with the same doom. Mr. Peter Robertson, head keeper at the Black Mount, told me in 1870 that he well remembered when there were several eyries annually in and about that forest. All of these were in trees except one on a low rocky island, on Loch Tulla, which might be said to be on the ground. He himself never knew this bird to build on a cliff, though he knew that they did so on the coast. An old forester, however, had told him that more than fifty years ago there used to be an eyrie on the Monich dhu, "Black rock," which overhangs Loch Triachatan in Glencoe. Most of these that Robertson remembered were placed on Scotch firs; one was within 20o yards of an eyrie of the golden eagle. Halliday informed me that the eagle built every year in Catichol Glen in Arran up to 1847. In that winter the ledge of rock in which the eyrie was built fell down, and the eagle never returned. No eagle bred in Arran till 1870, when a pair built in the island, but deserted their eggs without hatching.'

These birds vary much in colour and size, the head and neck apparently becoming lighter with age. About 1879 a female, which had been committing great havoc among the lambs at Eigg, was, according to Harvie-Brown, 'reluctantly shot.' It was of a most beautiful silvery grey colour all over-Gray, who saw it, appears to have only once before seen a similar specimen ; but albinoes have once or twice been recorded. The extreme spread of wings varies in individuals from six feet to more than seven feet six inches-which latter width is about the average.

There are various tales and traditions, in this as in other countries, of children having been carried off by these powerful birds ; but with what truth it is difficult to say. Here is an example from a MS. written in 1664 by one Matthew Mackaile, apothecary in Aberdeen, as to an alleged instance in Orkney. 'I was very well informed that an eagle did take up a swaddled child, a month old, which the mother had laid down until she went to the back of the peat stack at Honton Head, and carried it off to Choye, four miles, being discovered by a traveller who heard the lamentations of the mother; four men went presently thither in a boat, and, knowing the eagle's nest, found the child without any prejudice done to it.' To this may be added that this quotation is also given ` without prejudice.'

But the eagle did not always come off victorious; there is record of an instance where one was seen to strike a fish which proved too heavy for its strength, so that it disappeared into the depths. In a similar case the dead fish and dead eagle were both washed ashore; while a great halibut was once got, in whose back were still imbedded the feet of an eagletelling their own tale.

This bird is known by a number of Gaelic names, as Iolair-bhreac (spotted eagle), Iolaircladaich (shore eagle), Iolair-bhuide (yellow eagle), Iolair-riabhach (brindled eagle), Iolairna-mara (sea eagle), and Iolair-shuil na-greine (eagle of sunlit eye). But the latter poetic name was most probably not meant to be descriptive of this species only; indeed, it is doubtful whether exact discrimination had always been exercised by the ordinary observer, between the two resident British species. The name ' spotted eagle' at one time gave rise to a long and heated discussion as to the occurrence in Scotland of the true spotted eagle, Aquila clangs; a species that has occasionally, but very rarely, been recorded from England and Ireland, but up to now has not been found in Scotland.

It is sad, indeed, to find that this noble bird, so intimately associated with the wild headlands and cliffs of our West Highlands, is on the very verge of extinction - thanks to the greed of those who, for the sake of gain, pander to the desires of men who pride themselves on their collection of empty egg-shells.

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