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Farmers criticise white-tailed eagle scheme for Suffolk
By Andrew Woodger
BBC Suffolk

Plan for sea eagles wins support

Plans to re-introduce the white-tailed eagle to the Suffolk coast are being criticised by farmers.

The RSPB and Natural England say the bird, also known as the sea eagle, will mainly eat rabbits, fish and carrion.

However, the Country Land and Business Association fears the bird may pose a threat to livestock and rare wildlife.

The eagle was hunted to extinction in England by the early 19th Century, but it's already been re-introduced to the west coast of Scotland.

"The re-introduction represents an important conservation milestone," said David Wood, chairman of the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB Partnership.

"It could lead to these magnificent birds once more becoming a regular sight over lowland Britain."

The study into re-introducing the eagle in England began in 2006 and concluded that Suffolk provided the best lowland, wetland habitat.

The plan is to release 15-20 birds each year which will have come from other parts of Europe.

RSPB Minsmere with Sizewell B nuclear power station
RSPB Minsmere is one of several sites where the eagle would appear

The project is a joint one between Natural England and the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds).

When it was first suggested the bird could be introduced in Suffolk, there were fears the endangered bittern population would be threatened.

The project was moved to North Norfolk, but it was turned down there and the Suffolk idea was then put back on the table.

"Since then we have consulted with experts across Europe where the two species co-exist," said a spokesperson for Natural England. "We've undertaken a comprehensive literature search of the white-tailed eagle's diet.

"As a result of this work we are confident that any risk presented to bitterns will be minimal, and have therefore decided it is appropriate to bring the feasibility study back to Suffolk.

"In accordance with European law, no releases will occur until an Appropriate Assessment has been carried out with satisfactory conclusions."

Lazy bird

White-tailed eagle/sea eagle
The white-tailed eagle is likened to 'flying barn doors'

The RSPB, which expects the eagle to grace the skies over its Minsmere and North Warren reserves, says the bird is actually quite lazy and while it does kill fish, rabbits and other birds it mainly eats carrion (dead animals).

The eastern branch of the farmers organisation, the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), claims its members aren't being shown the scientific studies about the impact such a large bird of prey would have.

"There's research out there that the sea eagle eats bitterns, lambs and poultry," said Nicola Currie, the CLA's eastern region director.

"We've been told that the Natural England licensing department has already been notified that Natural England intends to apply for a license in March 2010.

"No-one has ever released a great bird of prey like this into an area of agricultural productivity such as we have here in East Anglia where we have all these outdoor pigs, outdoor poultry.

"We would like the consultation to happen in the normal way - the evidence, then the consultation, then the agreement to go ahead. Not back to front.

"If this can't get finished on time, then what's the rush? Please could we not speed everything up by March and take it at the pace that it needs to go for a proper consultation to take place."

No 'major problems'

Natural England says getting local people and farmers behind the project is important for its long-term success.

"We do not anticipate any major problems with livestock because there is so much natural food available for white-tailed eagles in Suffolk," said a spokesperson.

"Those white-tailed eagles that spend the winter in southern England have not caused any problems for farmers. In Scotland white-tailed eagles occasionally take lambs, but most reports are of the birds scavenging dead lambs or taking sick or diseased lambs that would have died anyway.

"We do, however, believe that eagles could on occasion take livestock. We recognise that the intensive outdoor livestock units in East Anglia are not replicated in other parts of Eastern Europe where white-tailed eagles live - but we are looking to work closely with farming groups to minimise the risks and try to make sure nobody is significantly financially disadvantaged.

"We have held many discussions already with CLA, National Farmers Union (NFU) and livestock farmers, and we have sought dates from CLA and NFU representatives and member farmers for more detailed discussions in January 2010."

Anti-sea eagles placard on the A12 in Suffolk
The protest campaign has put up signs along the A12 in Suffolk

Postscript, 2010

Natural England has decided to carry out more research throughout the year. A statement reads: "We will continue to pull together information during 2010 - depending on the results and the availability of funding we would look to begin formal consultation in the second half of 2010."

The birds would only be introduced in August, so the earliest this would now happen is August 2011.

The CLA welcomed the news and congratulated Natural England on their decision to allow more time for research.

"This will give us all the opportunity to step back a pace, and for land managers conservationists and property owners to make their concerns understood," said Nicola Currie.

"There is great need for a comprehensive study of the effects these very large predators might have upon a livestock industry of outdoor pigs and poultry such as we have in the proposed area of introduction."

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