GOOD AS GOLD
BBC Wildlife|February 2022
The golden eagle has long been in decline in the UK. A new project is helping this magnificent raptor to spread its wings once again.
GORDON BUCHANAN
IT WAS A BLUE-SKY day on the west coast of Scotland, as I stood at the side of a familiar track, gazing across a lonely stretch of moorland overlooked by a domed mountain with a rocky escarpment on its southern slope. I had travelled along this track countless times over the years, regularly informing my companions that this is Eagle Country.

Little did I know on previous visits how true that statement was. As I discovered on that summer’s afternoon, on a high ledge on the bouldery, craggy face of the escarpment was an eagle’s nest. I’ve visited different eyries many times over the years, and the moment always sweeps me away: my eyes strain through binoculars to catch a glimpse of the chicks; my neck cranes in all directions in the hope of an early view of an adult bird returning with prey.

As caught up in the scene as I was, the question that crossed my mind on this occasion was: just how long has this ledge been used? It will almost certainly have provided a home not just for this pair, but for countless eagles before them. Despite the changes that have and continue to take place in the world, what golden eagles need and like remains unchanged, particularly when it comes to the best spot to lay their precious eggs and raise their young.

The close-to-fledging chick that stared down at me that day has long since flown, but the eyrie is still there, and has been for a long time. For not just hundreds, but for thousands of years an eagle pair with a territory in this glen may well have chosen this particular ledge. In fact, it’s not too much of a stretch to assume that even 14,000 years ago, when the ice sheets had completedtheir work of moulding the Scottish landscape we see today, this rocky cliff-face would have been a top choice for these epic birds of prey.

OVER THE YEARS, FOR WORK and pleasure, I’ve been lucky enough to have spent time watching golden eagles. I love them. And it’s not just me. As early as recorded history goes, humankind has been fascinated by the eagle, with these raptors regarded with a mystic reverence in almost every country in which they are found. Golden eagles are depicted in some of the world’s earliest art forms – in cave art, coinage, carvings, crests, seals and stamps. The mighty Roman legions used the eagle as their standard, leading the once great empire.

So how best to describe them? I trap myself with the same phrase each time by saying that the golden eagle is the perfect predator, but I realise that I’ve probably said the same of leopards, polar bears, sharks, crocodiles and perhaps just about every predator that I have spent time with.

The reality is that nature is full of perfection. Time and circumstance have squeezed all living things down the same long evolutionary corridor, with every species earning its hard-won right to be here. Bumblebees are perfect, giraffes are perfect, blobfish are perfect. But for me, as someone with a penchant for predators, the golden eagle is especially so.

Maybe the alliteration makes it an easy go-to to say ‘perfect predators’, but when it comes to the golden eagle, I struggle to find a better phrase. These birds are masters of their part of the wild world and heart-stoppingly exciting to watch, whether diving from great heights at close to 200mph or catching prey on foot, wildly flapping as they run.

Golden eagles are the most skilful of hunters, opportunists that can make a meal from virtually any animal of a reasonable size. In the UK alone, more than 400 species of vertebrate have been recorded as prey, from hinds to hedgehogs and everything in between. In fact, you can go even smaller than a hedgehog: I once saw an eagle drop a freshly killed wren off at the nest. How’s that for nimble?

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM BBC WILDLIFEView All

It's party time for cuttlefish

A season of dancing, light displays and flirtatious shenanigans is on the cards for the cephalopods

1 min read
BBC Wildlife
May 2022

TINY DANCER

The immortal freshwater organism that tangles prey with its toxic, harpoon-flinging tentacles

2 mins read
BBC Wildlife
May 2022

Kill the cull?

According to new research, the badger cull isn't working. We take a look at the science.

6 mins read
BBC Wildlife
May 2022

PURPLE HAZE

Step into a rare lowland flower meadow and lose yourself among dreamy wild orchids

2 mins read
BBC Wildlife
May 2022

DIG FOR BUTTERFLIES

Britain's butterflies are struggling It's more important than ever to do what we can to help.

7 mins read
BBC Wildlife
May 2022

CITY LIVING

It's been 50 years since the first city farm was established and their role in providing a haven for nature continues to grow

6 mins read
BBC Wildlife
May 2022

FRIEND. FOE. FOX.

They live among us in the city and countryside - yet foxes are too often misunderstood and persecuted. Intimate photos cast new light on our divisive but beautiful neighbour.

4 mins read
BBC Wildlife
May 2022

AT HOME WITH THE CLAN

As the rainy season brings wildebeest back to Zambia's Liuwa Plain grasslands, spotted hyenas prepare for a feast

8 mins read
BBC Wildlife
May 2022

AGAINST THE ODDS

Brazil's Pantanal was consumed by wildfires in 2020. Miraculously, its jaguars not only survived, but are now thriving in the world's most famous wetland.

9 mins read
BBC Wildlife
Spring 2022

Giraffe numbers on the up

A positive population trend has been reported by a giraffe conservation charity, providing hope for the iconic species

1 min read
BBC Wildlife
April 2022