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Eagles in Ireland face extinction — again

A handful of rogue farmers may turn the clock back 100 years.

Golden Eagle with chick.
A golden eagle feeds its chick in its nest in a marsh near the village of Konny Dvor, Belarus, May 25, 2009. (Vasily Fedosenko/REUTERS)

 DUBLIN, Ireland — 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.

(May 2005: Ireland's golden eagles lays first egg since 1912)

“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.”