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Where eagles ‘once’ dared

White-tailed Eagle

A study of place-names reveals the extent of a once thriving eagle population roaming over a very different landscape to that of today.

Derek Yalden

An account of both place-name evidence and the archaeological record (Yalden 2007 British Birds 100: 471-480) was used to argue that White-tailed Eagles Haliaeetus albicilla were once widespread throughout lowland Great Britain, and that considering reintroduction to, for instance, East Anglia, was historically acceptable. However, that account noted that eagle place-names might plausibly refer to either White-tailed Eagle or Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos, and acknowledged the poor coverage of Celtic names. These shortcomings have been thoroughly addressed by a paper in the current issue Bird Study. [Richard J. Evans, Lorc├ín O’Toole & D. Philip Whitfield (2012): The history of eagles in Britain and Ireland: an ecological review of place-name and documentary evidence from the last 1500 years, Bird Study, DOI:10.1080/00063657.2012.683388]

Not only have they assembled a more substantial collection of over 500 place-names likely to relate to eagles (and another 160 names that despite an apparent “eagle” component probably refer in fact to churches or humans), but the names are more generally distributed across the British Isles, including a large number from Ireland. In examining these names, the authors used recent RSPB work documenting the differences in habitat choice by the two species to suggest which of the place-names refers to which species, with only a small number (19) left as uncertain or ambiguous: those in the lowlands, near water, in forest are more likely to be White-tailed Eagle, and those in open country, further from water, at higher altitudes are more likely to be Golden Eagle (Evans et al. 2010. Bird Study 57: 473-482).

This latest analysis of place-names suggest a once-extensive range for the White-tailed Eagle in England and Ireland, as well as around the periphery of Wales and Scotland, but also an extensive range for the Golden Eagle throughout upland Scotland, Northern England and Wales, as well as the fringe of Irish mountains. This suggested range is compared with that revealed by more recent historical records, and the combined evidence used to estimate the likely population sizes of the two species in Mesolithic times, about 500 AD and about 1800 AD. In Mesolithic times, there may well have been 2550 pairs of White-tailed, but only 650 pairs of Golden. With farming and forest clearance, the populations of both species are estimated at around 1000 pairs by 500 AD, and by 1800 AD White-tailed, suffering more directly from persecution as well as deforestation, were far scarcer than Golden. If it were still needed, there is plenty of evidence here to support the various reintroduction programmes already underway.

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Picture credit: White-tailed Eagle © Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

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5 comments on “Where eagles ‘once’ dared

  1. This is a fascinating piece of work. As well as telling us a lot about past distrubutions of two key raptor species, it also shows how ecological knowledge can help in the understanding of historical information. So it is a key read for both ornithologists and historians, which is quite an achievement. The historical distributions maps of the two eagle species are very sobering and show just how much has been lost.

  2. Avatar John Stewart-Smith says:

    Very interesting historical insight. Now, how about exploring the occurrence and distribution of placenames that include ‘Gair’ like gairloch etc indicating a possible link to gair fowl — the Great Auk. I think links to the Isle of Man may be found as well as Scottish links.

  3. I am pleased to see this type of work being carried out. I well remember trying to reconstruct the Chough’s population in England and Wales as part of my 1981-85 stint at the EGI. That was a manual haul and trawl through the archives with the best data from 1800 to 1980.

    The place name search tools available today and the completing of the Early and Middle English dictionary projects mean that this can be a far more systematic enquiry. Celtic place name studies are moving ahead with for example some remarkable work in Ceredigion.

    I look forward to seeing more projects such as this. They have a great deal to tell us about ‘ideal’ or ‘natural’ population levels. There is a distinction between the two, as I concluded that in the case of the Chough, coastal sheep grazing extended their natural habitat to a material degree. A nuanced relationship with humanity.

  4. Avatar Bird surveys in Ireland says:

    Very interesting piece of information. I love reading such kind of information and keep on doing research on such issues. I also like doing bird surveys in various parts of the world. It is one of the reasons that attracted me towards your blog.

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