Symbolizing regality, leadership, courage, and nobility, eagles are a common symbol found throughout European heraldry. The White-tailed Eagle, also known as the White-tailed Sea Eagle or simply “Sea Eagle,” is the largest bird of prey in the United Kingdom. Not too long ago, though, this bird was extinct in the UK due to overhunting in the 19th century. Reintroduction and conservation efforts have brought the White-tailed Eagle’s UK population back from the brink, but there remain areas of this bird’s historical native range where it has still not yet returned.
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On such region is Wales. Once upon a time, the White-tailed Eagle lived and bred in Wales, but it has not done so at all in the last 150 years. In fact, White-tailed Eagles have not been common in Wales since at least 1860. Sadly, eagles in general have been absent from Wales for more than 150 years.
But there is hope. In 1975, 82 White-tailed Eagles were brought to the UK and released on the Isle of Rum over the course of a decade. By 1985, the reintroduction campaign had produced its first breeding pair and the once-extinct bird soared through the skies of the British Isles again. Subsequent reintroductions have bolstered the original population and there is now a healthy breeding population of White-tailed Eagles in Scotland. In 2005, a similar campaign was started in Ireland with the goal of establishing a healthy Irish population of White-tailed Eagles.
In the areas where reintroduction has been successful, the White-tailed Eagle has made a promising, if precarious, comeback. But despite reintroduction campaigns in other sections of the British Isles, Wales has remained eagle-less. Until now.
A recent sighting has stirred both mystery and wonder for Welsh conservation groups. A farmer in Gwynedd snapped a photograph in early January of 2024. The photo garnered immediate attention as the first evidence in over 150 years of an eagle in Wales. The White-tailed Eagle was seen by several farm workers and the photographs seem to show an immature adult. What’s extra remarkable about this is the youth of the bird. It is almost certainly a wild bird rather than a reintroduced one. Wales has not been home to eagles in 150 years, but even more than that, White-tailed Eagles have not been seen nesting or breeding in Wales since the 16th century. This is a sighting 500 years in the making.
Now it’s worth noting that this bird was almost certainly not born in Wales. A White-tailed Eagle nesting in Wales would be huge news and would be very unlikely to escape notice. That said, nobody knows quite where it has come from. The appearance of a wild bird, one that is definitely not a recent reintroduction, in Wales is a source of hope that has been absent from Welsh skies for centuries.
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