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New study shows iconic golden eagle was once common throughout Wales

30 June 2020

Sophie-lee Williams with a golden eagle
Sophie-lee Williams

A new study has shown that golden and white-tailed eagles were widespread and common throughout historic Wales.

Scientists looked at their historical distribution as part of their bid to bring the species, which became regionally extinct in the early-1800s, back to the Welsh countryside.

During their research they gained fascinating insights by looking at archaeological, fossil and observational records - and even Welsh place names.

The study also includes the earliest evidence of golden eagles existing in Wales in the Devensian period - the final glacial period in Britain - about 20,000 years ago.

Sophie-lee Williams, 28, who manages the Eagle Reintroduction Wales Project as part her PhD at Cardiff University, said: “One of the first challenges for our project was to gather evidence of the past distribution of both eagle species to prove they were once historically native to Wales.

“In other parts of Britain there’s a wealth of data - but in Wales there is a real lack of historical record so we had to be creative.

“Our research has shown, without doubt, that both species were widespread and common across Wales prior to the 18th Century. We hope this opens up new optimism about restoring these magnificent species to Wales in the near future.”

A graphic to show the records gathered on the historical distribution of eagles in Wales
A graphic to show the records gathered on the historical distribution of eagles in Wales

The researchers gathered 151 historic records for eagles across every county in Wales - 81 for golden eagles and 70 for white-tailed eagles.

“The golden eagles’ core distribution prior to their extinction in Wales was weighted towards North Wales, centred on the upland areas of Snowdonia,” said Sophie-lee, whose nan sparked her love of wildlife while growing up in the South Wales valleys town of Aberdare.

“White-tailed eagles could be found more commonly in southern, lowland Wales, including coastal areas like Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion, and Kenfig, Bridgend and Margam in South Wales.”

The Kenfig area yielded more than 50 years of regular white-tailed eagle records between 1810 and 1860, with one as late as 1906. Golden eagles were frequently observed in Denbighshire, Snowdonia, across Gwynedd and Mid-Wales.

“We also looked at place-name records incorporating the Welsh word for eagle - which is ‘eryr’ - and found that these records were dispersed across much of Wales, but more abundant in North Wales, Mid-Wales and as far south as Pembrokeshire,” said Sophie-lee.

Even cultural references point to their native status. Written records of eagles date back to the 9th Century in early Welsh-language ‘englyn’ poems such as ‘Canu Heledd’ (the Song of Heledd), ‘Eryr Eli’ (Eli’s Eagle) and ‘Eryr Pengwern’ (the Eagle of Pengwern). This highlights the importance of both species of eagle in the heritage and culture of Wales.

Sophie-lee Williams

The earliest records came from fossilised remains in Welsh archaeological exhibitions.

“We have fossil remains of both the golden and white-tailed eagle recorded at Cathole cave, Gower, dated to the Devensian periods about 20,000 years ago and white-tailed eagle remains at Port Eynon Cave, Gower, dating back to the Mesolithic period, 6,000-9,000 years ago,” she said.

“It’s quite incredible really. More recent archaeological findings dating back to the Roman times were found in Caerleon, Gwent, and Segontium, Carmarthenshire.”

The last breeding records for golden eagles were in Snowdonia National Park, dated between the 1820 and 1850s, and for the white-tailed eagle in Kenfig Burrows on the Swansea coast during 1828.

The researchers found strong historic evidence of the conflicts between eagles and farmers, which gave rise to persecution, eventually resulting in the regional extinction of breeding eagles in Wales.

Historic persecution records collated detailed records of eagles being shot by landowners due to “scavenging on sheep carcasses” or the belief that eagles “killed sheep and lambs”.

This human-wildlife conflict was first recorded in Wales during the 17th Century and continued through the 19th Century, eliminating all breeding and young eagles dispersing from further north in Britain.

Sophie-lee has been conducting scientific research on the feasibility of restoring eagles to Wales over the last three years.

UK species reintroduction criteria is led by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). A key plank is that the potential reintroduction location lies within the former range of the species.

“Our results fill knowledge gaps regarding the historic ranges of both species in Britain and support the future restoration of either or both species to Wales,” said Sophie-lee.

The research was published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice this week.

Sophie-lee said further analysis was now being conducted to assess whether the modern Welsh landscape could still support both the golden and white-tailed e­­agle, and to assess whether a reintroduction of either or both eagle species to Wales is a realistic possibility.

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