A white-tailed sea eagle, reintroduced as part of a nature conservation programme, was found dead in February at Burnfoot Hill wind farm in the Ochil hills near Tillicoutry in Clackmannanshire. A post mortem by government-approved scientists concluded that a “likely cause of death” was collision with a wind turbine.
Eagles have been killed by wind farms in Germany and Norway before, but no deaths have previously been recorded in Scotland. Conservationists stress that many more eagles are killed by landowners, gamekeepers, power lines and trains.
But evidence that a sea eagle has now died after crashing into a wind turbine is likely to ignite fierce controversy, and trigger renewed questions about where wind farms should be sited.
Sea eagles were driven to extinction in Scotland early in the 20th Century, and have been reintroduced from Norway in a series of government-backed releases beginning in the 1980s. Bigger than golden eagles, they are the UK’s largest bird of prey, with an estimated 79 pairs now successfully breeding.
The dead sea eagle, known as Red T, was a male released in the east of Scotland in 2011. His body was found three months ago under a layer of snow beneath a wind turbine at Burnfoot Hill, which was developed by the Bristol-based company, Wind Prospect, and is owned and run by the French state enterprise, EDF Energy Renewables.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) commissioned vets from Scotland’s Rural College, which also works for the Scottish Government, to conduct a post mortem. Their investigation ruled out death by poisoning, and discovered that two bones in the bird’s left leg were broken.
“Dark discolouration” around the head and neck suggested that the eagle had suffered trauma, the post mortem report said. “Trauma consistent with, but not limited to, that expected from collision with a wind turbine has been recorded as the likely cause of death,” it concluded.
The death was “very disappointing”, said Aedán Smith, head of planning and development at RSPB Scotland. “This tragic incident serves as a stark reminder of the importance of ensuring wind farms are carefully planned to avoid our best places for wildlife.”
The RSPB was increasingly concerned about the number of applications for wind turbines in areas that, unlike the Ochils, were known to be important for eagles, he added. “Hopefully, these will be withdrawn by the applicants or declined by the planning authorities.”
Smith pointed out, though, that white-tailed sea eagles were far more likely to be killed by other causes. According to RSPB figures, since 2007 six had been killed by trains, eight by power lines and at least six illegally poisoned or shot (see table below).
The number who died because of illegal persecution may be much higher as cases can easily go undetected, the RSPB stresses. Since 1989, sea eagles along with golden eagles in Scotland have reportedly been victims of 63 incidents of illegal poisoning, shooting, trapping or nest destruction.
Ron Macdonald, policy director with the government’s wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage, was saddened by the eagle’s death. “Evidence has been growing from Europe that white-tailed eagles are fairly vulnerable to collision with wind turbines, and clearly we have to monitor the situation closely in Scotland,” he said.
EDF Energy Renewables confirmed that “regrettably” a white-tailed sea eagle had been found dead at Burnfoot Hill, which has 13 100-metre high turbines. ”It is thought that it died as a result of colliding with one of the turbines at the site,” said the company’s head of asset management, Nick Bradford.
“Together with our wind farm development partners, we take the utmost care in selecting potential sites and undertake extensive environmental studies including bird habitat and migration routes before constructing our wind farms.”
At Burnfoot Hill, there were bird surveys in 2003-04 and again from 2008 to 2010 to ensure that best practice guidelines were met. “However even with such work, unfortunate incidents like these, although uncommon, do still sometimes occur,” said Bradford.
“We will be working closely with RSPB and our own environmental consultants to determine what lessons can be learned from this incident and what might be done to prevent such incidents occurring in future.”
Joss Blamire, senior policy manager at the industry body Scottish Renewables, described the death as “a sad event”. But he cautioned that the impact of wind farms on birds should not be overstated.
The climate pollution that wind farms help avoid could cause species to become extinct, he argued. “I hope this isolated incident is not used by opponents of renewables to vilify a source of energy that displaced over 11 million tonnes of carbon dioxide last year alone.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The loss of any sea eagle is extremely disappointing, when so many people have worked so hard to bring back the species to Scotland.”
Known deaths of white-tailed sea eagles in Scotland
cause of death / deaths since 2007
wind farm / 1
trains / 6
poisoned or shot / 6*
power lines / 8
*Because illegal persecution goes undetected, this figure could be much higher.