And you’d be surprised who has come: the Glenveagh Castle visitors’ book includes the signature of Greta Garbo. Now, however, there is an even more elusive visitor.
Last autumn, eight Golden Eagle chicks arrived at Glenveagh from Scotland. The latest batches to arrive under the auspices of the Golden Eagle Reintroduction Project, a joint venture between D_chas, the Irish Raptor Study Group and the Curlew Trust, the birds announce a simple, noble aim: the reintroduction of a native species that vanished from Donegal in 1910.
The word “chick” is disconcerting. Sitting at the northern end of Lough Veagh, John Marsh, IRSG honorary treasurer, struggled to control 5-week-old eaglet that was already bigger than a chicken. He looked worried too, at the flashing bulbs and crowding faces. “We must avoid imprinting at all costs,” he said. “The birds could very quickly get used to humans. Then you just have pets, and we don’t want that.”
A degree of human contact was necessary, however. Though there have been reported sightings of Golden Eagles in Ireland since their disappearance, the visitors have never managed to recolonize Ireland naturally. As such, after receiving a license for donor stock last June, project manager Lorcan O’Toole set his sights on Scotland.
After undergoing training in rock climbing, O’Toole made for the remote aeries of Inverness, the Central Highlands and the Isle of Skye. Abseiling downward, observing conservation principles dictating that birds can be taken only from aeries in which there are two surviving chicks, he bagged his quarry. Hauled to the summits on separate ropes, last year’s eaglets were flown from Aberdeen to Donegal in a chartered plane. This year, they came by boat and road.
“Hopefully, they’ll forget the last 24 hours,” sighed John Marsh of a painful PR exercise. Afterward, whisked away to outdoor pens in a secret location within Glenveagh’s 16,000 acres, the chicks were introduced to nests of sticks, views of the terrain and an artificial rest platform.
Though the eaglets looked capable of dominating the Donegal skies, and were already thermoregulating, their wings were not yet strong enough to fly. Fed carrion through an artificial sleeve for another five or six weeks, only when fluffy white down was shed in favor of feathers — golden brown at the head and nape of neck — were they moved to a perch. By the end of September, they were too strong to handle, and were released into the wilds of Glenveagh.
By all accounts, the sight is a spectacular one. Five of the six birds released in 2001 have survived their first year, soaring and gliding on thermals and updrafts, reading Donegal’s contours instinctively. This year’s birds are beginning a similar adventure.
“When you’re out sitting on a hill with a pair of binoculars and you see an eagle gliding by at altitude, be it in a strong wind, mist or fog, it’s just a powerful sight,” O’Toole said. “They bring those hills to life.”
O’Toole is in a good position to comment. Having worked on Red Kite Reintroduction programs in Inverness and Stirling, he is passionate about his charges, knows them inside out. “This is an independent and hardy predator. It can breed from the tundra of Northern Europe to the deserts of North Africa. Human cultures and societies have always regarded the eagle with a certain amount of reverence.”
He listed the virtues: stealth, agility, majesty and grace. Among the Greeks and Romans, Aquila chrysaetos was Jupiter’s bird, the one that could rise highest of all. Roman legionaries, Saint John the Evangelist and the U.S. Navy have all taken it as their symbol. Celtic art is littered with sketchings and representations; Golden Eagles have been found carved into early Christian stone crosses and even page marks to the Book of Kells.
It is not hard to see why. At full maturity, the Golden Eagle’s wingspan stretches beyond 6 feet. Its keen eyesight enables it to see moving prey from a distance of three kilometers, the equivalent of reading a newspaper from seven stories in height. Diving at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour, its sharp talons and hooked beak will grasp and dismember hares, crows, fox cubs, rodents, frogs, gulls and pigeons.
Loss of habitat
Three hundred years ago, such maneuvers were a relatively common sight over the hills of Donegal. Cumulative loss of habitat, persecution and an increase in game shooting meant that by 1900, however, the population had crashed to 14 pairs. “The disappearance of the eagles,” as Gordon D’Arcy writes in his book “Ireland’s Lost Birds,” “represents the single most significant loss in our bird life, probably since the coming of man to Ireland.”
Mindful that enough birds need to be released in order to ensure a critical mass survives to reestablish a viable breeding population in the Northwest, the project hopes to release up to 75 birds in Glenveagh over a 5-year period. Golden Eagles reach sexual maturity at between 4 and 5 years, so by 2010 it is envisaged that up to eight pairs will flourish in Donegal.
There is no sense of complacency, however, as dangers remain. “There are natural threats,” O’Toole said. “Young birds in particular could face predation by foxes. But the main threat to Golden Eagles in Donegal is human.”
The threat can manifest itself in myriad ways. During the harsher, winter months, eagles feed on carrion from dead sheep, deer or goats, rendering them vulnerable to indiscriminate poisoning. “But poisoning is decreasing in Donegal and we have great support from the local farming community,” O’Toole said. “Likewise, we don’t expect the birds to get shot, but it is a possibility.”
Certainly, when they first heard a new predator would be introduced to Glenveagh, the Donegal branch of the Irish Farmers’ Association was apprehensive. “In particular,” said chairman George O’Hagan, “farmers were worried about eagles lifting young lambs.”
What allayed fears, it seems, was a mixture of dialogue and compromise. The IFA spoke to farmers in Scotland, where there are currently 420 pairs of Golden Eagles, and were satisfied that the level of threat to Donegal lambs was minimal. Farmers have also been assured that if a lamb is proved to have been lifted by an eagle, they will receive compensation. “We now know we have nothing to fear,” O’Hagan said.
Glenveagh was chosen for a number of reasons. As a National Park it is afforded long-term protection, and that, combined with its reputation as a historical Golden Eagle site, makes for an ideal springboard. “Reintroduction will benefit Donegal in a number of ways,” O’Toole said. “We believe, for instance, that by establishing the Golden Eagle in upland areas we’ll be able to protect the upland habitats in general.”
Wild county, wild bird
Gains will be felt elsewhere too. Donegal remains the most peripheral county in Ireland, and has traditionally suffered from poor infrastructure and high unemployment. Through its open spaces and short vegetation, however, and the austere and varied terrain of Glenveagh, it stands to gain a species symbolic of the county’s wild character.
“You only have to look at their publicity value,” added Conor Daly, tourism manager at Donegal County Council. “These are the only eagles in Ireland; they make for a good news story, a unique reason to visit. They’re absolutely compatible with the image of Donegal as a rural, clean and open environment.”
Many historical Golden Eagle nesting ledges fall within Gaeltacht areas too, and _dar