Golden eagles could soon return to the skies above Snowdonia for the first time in nearly 200 years. Wilder Britain is in talks with local farmers and aims to submit a release licence to NRW in July.
If successful, project organisers hope to re-introduce 10 young Golden Eagles as soon as this autumn, though next year is more likely.
Nesting sites are currently being scouted in the national park amid hopes that Snowdonia’s Welsh name, Eryri, will once again live up to its translation as the “Land of the Eagles”.
The Welsh Golden Eagle Project is part of a wider initiative by Wilder Britain to “restore eco-system balance” in the area.
Other species re-introductions are planned, including the Mountain Hare which will also serve as prey for the newly established eagle population.
Wilder Britain also wants to expand local water vole numbers and plant upland woodlands to mitigate flooding problems in the lowlands.
Project lead Dr Paul O’Donoghue said Golden Eagles will be the initiative’s “ambassador species”.
“They are a key part of Welsh culture and heritage and they are sadly now missing from the Welsh landscape – Wales is now the only country in the UK without Golden Eagles,” he said.
“Imagine the excitement of seeing these incredible birds soaring around the rugged peaks of Snowdonia again.
“We plan to bring in young birds from mainland Europe to increase the genetic diversity of UK populations.
“As Golden Eagles don’t breed until they are five to seven years-old, it could be six years before we get the first Welsh-born bird.”
All 10 eagles – five males and five females – will be equipped with GPS transponders so that conservationists can build up a picture of their feeding and nesting movements.
The idea is to compile enough data to enable Wilder Britain to reintroduce Golden Eagles at other sites around Wales. “They’ll be like pioneers for the Welsh Golden Eagle,” added Dr O’Donoghue.
Working with farmers
A key aim of the project is to landowners, farmers and local communities on-side with its longer-term aims.
As well as improving habitats, re-introducing species and carrying out ecosystem services, Wilder Britain believes eco-tourism can provide some hill farmers will alternative incomes after Brexit.
On-the-ground work will also facilitate farmers who claim “Public Goods” payments from the Welsh Goverment in its revamped subsidy scheme.
Talks are underway with around 40 farmers and a landowner consultation is due to be launched this week.
Longer term, the project aims to form a farmer co-operative to carry out the work, claim grants and apply for payments.
Wilder Britain said the initiative was distinct from a pure rewilding scheme in that it would rely on prosperous farming communities.
Snowdonia farmer Brian Sheldon admitted he was initially sceptical of the idea of reintroducing an apex predator.
However experiences of similar projects in Scotland and Northern Ireland suggest lamb predation is not an issue – unlike re-introductions of the White-Tailed Sea Eagle.
“Having looked at the facts and experiences of farmers who already live with these birds in other places, my concerns have disappeared,” said Mr Sheldon.
“I think this will provide much needed diversification opportunities for Welsh upland famers in what are difficult times.”
Ecological feasibility studies are already under way to assess habitat suitability, prey density as well as factors such as human disturbance and predicted breeding sites.
Supplementary feeding will be provided initially until the birds become established and start pairing.
Some farmers remain dubious about the economic benefits of ecotourism but Dr O’Donoghue insisted the charismatic allure of Golden Eagles would draw wildlife lovers from far and wide.
“A very successful ecotourism industry has been developed around them elsewhere,” he said.
“Without doubt it would be one of the biggest ecotourism draws in the UK and would generate fantastic business opportunities for local communities.
“The farmers we met have welcomed the eagles.”