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Eagles in Ireland face extinction - again

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Eagles in Ireland face extinction - again

Handful of rogue farmers may turn clock back 100 years

  • An eagle takes flight in County Clare, Ireland, 2008.
    Brian Fitz/FlickrAn eagle takes flight in County Clare, Ireland, 2008.
  • Glenveagh National Park, Ireland.
    Chris & Alison/FlickrGlenveagh National Park, Ireland.

DUBLIN — Conall was found dead on Truskmore Mountain in the northwest of Ireland recently, and "Dr Poison" of Ballintrillick is the chief suspect. But the killer doesn't give a damn, it seems, and he is pretty much beyond the law. 

The victim was an Irish-bred Golden Eagle chick, reared in Glenveagh National Park, Donegal, and Dr Poison is the unknown farmer who put out the toxic meat bait that killed him. He and another handful of maverick farmers in Ireland may become responsible very soon for the disappearance of eagles from the Emerald Isle, only a few years after they were reintroduced for the first time in over a century.

Conall was a juvenile male that won the hearts of the country in 2009 when he became one of the first wild Golden Eagles to be hatched here for over 100 years. Then a White-Tailed Eagle was found dead in May in an area of sheep farms in Beaufort, County Killarney in the southwest of Ireland, also believed to be a victim of poisoning.

"It's heartbreaking," said Alan Mee, manager of the three-year-old project to bring White-Tailed Eagles back to Ireland. To date 55 White-Tailed Eagles, known as sea eagles, have been imported from Norway and of these 14 have died, of which seven are confirmed poisoning deaths.

"I feel that we are at a critical point," said Mee. "The loss of the birds has put the project in danger. If the poisoning continues the Norwegian authorities may decide the losses are unsustainable."

Mee travels to Norway every year to personally transport eagle chicks to Ireland. He brought the first 15 in 2007, and 20 each of the two years since. To his relief, Mee was told by Norwegian authorities this week  that the losses in Ireland are still just about sustainable. However the  Norwegian ambassador to Ireland, Oyvind Nordsletten, has expressed his concern and called on farmers to end to the practice of putting out poisoned meat bait to kill foxes and crows.

Most farmers are supportive of the project to renew the raptor population. But those responsible cannot be prosecuted under Irish law unless they are actually seen setting the poison deliberately to kill an eagle, said Eric Dempsey, bird writer and broadcaster based in Dublin.

"There is a legal loophole," Dempsey said. "It's OK to put out poisoned bait to kill foxes and crows, but not for these birds, so a farmer can just say he was putting out poison for foxes."

The rogue farmers — they could be counted on the fingers of one hand, believes Dempsey — could be doing damage to the economy.

"Eagle tourism is the fastest growing form of tourism in the world," he said. Eagle watchers have boosted tourism revenues by more than $2 million a year on the island of Rum off the west coast of Scotland, where sea eagles have been reintroduced in recent years.

"Can you imagine the thrill of throwing a fish up in the air and seeing an eagle swooping down to catch it?" said Dempsey, author of several bird books and a professional guide for birdwatchers visiting Ireland.  

The mainly brown sea eagles have bright yellow eyes, beak and talons and have a poetic Scottish Gaelic name, iolairesuilnagreine, meaning "the eagle with the sunlit eye." They became extinct in Ireland and Great Britain in the 19th century through hunting. They are now a much-treasured sight for tourists visiting the national park at Killarney, County Kerry.

The reintroduction of eagles in Donegal and Kerry was initially opposed by local sheep farmers but most have come to accept that they can co-exist with the raptors. One of the problems is that farmers are tired of all the restrictions placed on them due to rising conservation standards, said Lorcan O'Toole, manager of the Golden Eagle breeding project, which began in Glenveagh Park in 2001.

"They perceive the Green Agenda as a new form of Green Landlordism and the emotive and historical connotations that holds in rural Ireland," he writes on the Golden Eagle Trust website. "I sometimes sense however that some landowners still hold an old Imperial Feudal attitude toward their property — they own it and they will do as they please on their property." 

BirdWatch Ireland,  the largest independent conservation organization in the country, has called for a complete ban on the use of poisoned meat baits. Dempsey said most people know who is putting out the poison in Kerry but that person ignores requests to stop.

"It is not as if he is protecting pet lambs," he said. "They are for slaughter and he would get compensation."

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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