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Who is in favour of the sea eagle's return?

PUBLISHED: 13:01 26 November 2008 | UPDATED: 09:16 13 July 2010

EAGLES in north Norfolk? “Yes please!” That was my first reaction to the exciting advertisement placed by the RSPB, Natural England and Anglian Water in last week's News.

EAGLES in north Norfolk? “Yes please!” That was my first reaction to the exciting advertisement placed by the RSPB, Natural England and Anglian Water in last week's News.

The first two organisations are considering reintroducing white-tailed eagles into north Norfolk and want to know our views this week.

I've since heard about the problems their reintroduction is causing some farmers in Scotland. I've also read Norfolk conservationist John Buxton's strong objections to the idea - and I still think “Yes please!”

The awe-inspiring prospect of watching sea eagles, with their eight-foot wingspans, wheeling around our skies just overwhelms any consideration I might have for the occasions they take prey we would rather wasn't on their menu.

And I'm not alone. A poll of 500 members of the public in north Norfolk found 91pc in favour of the idea.

But I probably wouldn't say “Yes please!” if I were a livestock farmer. I understand an independent inquiry is to be held in Wester Ross, where some farmers say the eagles are taking so many lambs that their livelihoods are threatened, although that claim is disputed by the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage.

Mr Buxton knows an awful lot more about Norfolk wildlife than I do. He's managed the 1,700-acre Horsey estate for 50 years and fears Norfolk's fragile population of bitterns and avocets could be among the prey of sea eagles, known as “flying barn doors” because of the size and shape of their wings.

I picked the brains of a friend who has built up a lifetime's expertise in ornithology, travelling the world to study birds.

He tells me that the mainstay of a sea eagle's diet is fish and animals, but says there is no denying they will take whatever they can, given the opportunity.

My friend was among those who went to see a visiting sea eagle which overwintered in Cockley Cley, near Swaffham, about 10 years ago. During its stay, it dined solely on rabbit.

“Would they pose a threat to bittern and avocet?” I asked. He admitted that it was “a difficult one to call” as their ranges did not usually coincide with those of sea eagles.

But he said bitterns were only out and about in the open for a limited season and avocets were fairly aggressive, “mobby” birds who would give a sea eagle a good run for its money. He thought the eagles would probably constitute no greater threat than the carrion crows which steal avocets' eggs every year.

Those of us eager for eagles can't deny there would be risks involved. Equally, those who argue we should leave nature alone can't pretend we're not constantly interfering - either threatening species with guns and pesticides, or intervening to protect them and their habitats. Natural England say they are trying to restore sea eagles to places where they would be found naturally, were it not for human persecution in the past.

And surely the RSPB, which has worked so hard to nurture Norfolk's at-risk birds, such as the bittern and avocet, wouldn't advocate a project which might expose them to too great a risk?

The RSPB says sea eagles have boosted the local economy in Mull by more than £1.5m a year, drawing an extra 350,000 visitors - I can believe it. The island's long been near the top of my “must see” list. Just think what they might do for tourism in north Norfolk.

And any peckish eagle seeking to keep the rumblies at bay would be welcome to drop in for elevenses at North Walsham Market Place where, I'm told, the pigeons are numerous, plump and very tasty.

·Natural England and the RSPB are hosting public drop-in sessions at Snettisham Village Hall today, November 27, from 1pm to 6.30pm, and in Blakeney Village Hall on Sunday, November 30, from 10am to 4pm, when everyone is invited to find out more about the eagle project and give their views.


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