Wearing a woollen RSPB hat, John Pilbeam is enjoying a chilly spring day in the south-eastern England seaside town of Southwold. Like many visitors to the Suffolk coast, he and his wife, Brenda, are bird lovers and members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Just the sort of people, you would imagine, who would enthusiastically support perhaps the most spectacular and daring conservation scheme in Britain today: the plan to let the sea eagle stretch its majestic 8ft wingspan again in the skies above East Anglia.
The Pilbeams have already travelled to Norway and Scotland just to see this huge bird of prey - the fourth- largest avian raptor in the world. So it is a surprise when they give their opinion on returning the sea eagles (also known as white-tailed eagles) to the Suffolk coast.
“They need the space to fly freely, to nest and breed, and there isn’t the space for them here. It would be awful to cramp them in,” says Ms. Brenda.
“I can't understand why they want to introduce them into this area,” Mr. John agrees. “If the sea eagles come in and decimate the birds on the coast, no one will be happy. It will be a great tourist attraction, but it doesn’t seem to fit in with the natural scheme of things.”
A stubborn rebellion is brewing in this part of Suffolk. “Say no to sea eagles here,” shout big signs mounted on farm trailers by main roads. One newspaper columnist has called the eagles “a symbol of a quango's PR exercise and contempt for human society”.
We drove the white-tailed eagle to extinction in England more than 200 years ago; the last pair was recorded on the Isle of Wight. They became extinct in Scotland at the start of the last century but, after several decades of trying, were successfully re-established in north-west Scotland after chicks had been taken from nests in Norway. Since they bred 25 years ago, the eagles have flourished on the islands of Rum, Skye and Mull, delighting tourists and upsetting some local crofters who blame them for taking lambs.
Britain is obliged by an EU directive to restore habitat and actively reintroduce species where practical and desirable. Six extinct animals have been reintroduced in England in the last three decades, including the red kite, osprey and large blue butterfly. All have been hugely successful in economic and social as well as ecological terms, and Natural England, the government's agency responsible for the countryside, is now considering reviving three more extinct species: the hen harrier, short-haired bumblebee and, in the estuaries and marshes of East Anglia, the white-tailed eagle.
At first, a poll of more than 500 people in six Suffolk towns found 78% in favour of the project. The RSPB estimated the eagles could boost the local economy by GBP2m. Since the eagle scheme was announced, however, opposition has mounted. The reintroduction site was, temporarily, switched from Suffolk to Norfolk after fears were expressed about the impact on rare bitterns in Suffolk.
At a Norfolk Wildlife Trust meeting earlier this month, more than three quarters of attendees (many of whom were landowners and farmers) were against it. One man in the audience spoke of conservationists doing “a wonderful Max Clifford job on the eagle”, referring to a famous PR consultant, accusing the RSPB of “punting them like [the celebrity model] Katie Price - the big birds are what brings the punters in, the tourists”.
In fact, the project had already been switched to Suffolk again, and the RSPB's hopes of releasing chicks this spring were scuppered. By the ruins of Covehithe church in north Suffolk are 80 paddocks, each with their own corrugated iron hut. Contented-looking sows root up turf outside each hut, which together contain almost 800 small piglets. This is Roger Middleditch's livelihood. His land is dry and sandy and poor; without the pigs these fields would not be worth farming.
Sea eagles are opportunistic predators. In Norway, their diet is mostly fish. In lowland Germany and the Baltic states, they take rabbits, small birds and carrion. In Scotland, crofters on the Gairloch peninsula claimed the eagles took 200 of 1,000 sheep in the area. A confidential study on the eagles’ impact on farming by the independent Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) found “good evidence” that the birds took some live lambs in Scotland, but concluded that sea eagles only killed 33 to 37 lambs on Mull each year - hardly a livelihood-threatening death toll.
In Suffolk, Middleditch is sanguine about sea eagles snatching a few piglets. “Losing the odd piglet doesn’t concern me too much - but the potential to do a lot of damage is very easy.” As he explains, pigs are sensitive creatures easily spooked by big silhouettes in the sky. Hot-air balloons terrify them; so do large birds of prey. When scared, the sows jump up and try to chase off the threat: newborn piglets can get trampled; heavily pregnant, stressed sows can lose their babies.
Jimmy Butler breeds 40,000 pigs each year on his free-range farm near Blythburgh close to the Suffolk coast. His sows are farrowing – giving birth - every day of the year. He claims the sea eagles will cause panic.
“When they fly over the top, they terrify the hell out of everything beneath them,” Mr. Butler says. “If the sows run like hell and panic, they will go straight through the electric wire and run on to the A12 [road] and someone will get killed.”
Randolph Ford, meanwhile, keeps two free-range hen houses, holding 16,000 hens each, in rural Suffolk. “It’s the fear factor,” he says. “They are bad enough if a sparrowhawk goes over, and those are small birds of prey. If a bird frightens them, it will put them off the lay.”
From 100 hens, Ford gets an average of 90 eggs each day; he believes this would fall by 25% if they were scared by a sea eagle. It could also lead to “smothering” when the frightened hens race into the hen house. As the FWAG report notes of ravens and buzzards terrorising free-range hens in Devon: “A few persistent birds can soon raise mortality to uneconomic levels.”
The last time Ford had a major smothering incident was when a fox came past: 580 birds perished. “We could sort him out. There was no problem after that,” he says. Other farmers point out that angry landowners may shoot the sea eagles, even though it is illegal, if they sincerely believe their livelihoods are at stake.
Many farmers argue bringing white-tailed eagle chicks over from Norway is an introduction, rather than a reintroduction, and evidence of sea eagles in East Anglia is sketchy at best. Others point out that if they did fly here it was in Anglo-Saxon times; today’s intensively farmed landscape is utterly different. The RSPB, however, estimates that sea eagles flew here about 400 years ago. Place names are good evidence: Yarn Hill means Eagle Hill, and overlooks an estuary where the sea eagles would have hunted fish.
Mark Avery, the RSPB's conservation director, struggles to contain his exasperation with the anti- arguments when we meet at Snape Maltings by the River Ald. Dry reeds rattle in the wind; acres of wetland and estuary stretch out invitingly for the eagles. But Avery accepts that conservationists need to tackle the widespread perception that these birds are out-of-place and alien to lowland England.
“The public see them on Springwatch and think they live up a mountain in Scotland and catch fish. That's how they make a living across Scandinavia, but there are loads of them in lowland Europe. They are just over the water in the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Poland, living in lowlands with people and not eating babies and not destroying the rural economy.”
When farmers point out there are not the same kind of outdoor pig and poultry farms in mainland Europe as in Suffolk, Avery gives them short shrift. There are, he says, plenty of big birds, from black-backed gulls to buzzards, which already swoop over pig units, to say nothing of military helicopters. He accepts there may be a few losses, but says Natural England is open to discussing “some sensible form of compensation” for farmers.
“There might be the odd piglet or goose or chicken that gets taken. That can be sorted out. Just think of all the B&Bs, pubs and hotels that will get more custom.”
One part wildlife lovers, one part paparazzi, twitchers gather in great flocks for half a day to see a rare bird - but then disappear again. “That isn't tourism,” says one farmer. “That is people who make a nuisance of themselves in a small area. Tourism is people who enjoy our coastline, buy some Adnams and stay for a week.”
Rob Macklin, Suffolk coast manager for the RSPB, points out that the sea eagles will particularly benefit the local economy in the off-season: Suffolk will receive thousands of extra winter visitors, just as bird lovers visit Mull in Scotland. An estimated GBP2m extra in tourism each year sounds like a good return on a project the RSPB claims will cost GBP600,000.
Too often, perhaps, farmers and conservationists are pitted against each other. Robert Middleditch, a cousin of Roger, is a farmer who is also a conservationist. His arable farm is partitioned by thick hedges and conservation strips with barn owl boxes in the trees. “We don't need lecturing by anyone about how to be environmental,” he says.
A trustee of the charity Songbird Survival, Robert Middleditch is concerned that the return of sea eagles - alongside flourishing populations of sparrowhawks, buzzards and marsh harriers - will decimate declining populations of farmland birds. “It would be a real tragedy for farming and for conservation if they were released in East Anglia. It's nothing about increasing biodiversity,” he argues. “It will reduce it.”
Despite the balance of wildlife and agriculture on his land, he has seen his 200 breeding pairs of sparrows fall to just four over the last two decades - due, he says, to the conservation “success” that is the return of sparrowhawks. Middleditch believes the sea eagle money would be better spent conserving our threatened species. “To many of us, much more iconic [than the sea eagle] is the tree sparrow, which has suffered a 90% population decline.”
Avery, of the RSPB, admits sea eagles will eat other birds. They were worried about bitterns, he says, but have now “done our homework” and not found a single record of white-tailed eagles taking bitterns around the world. The eagles “will probably take quite a lot of waders in the winter,” he concedes, but their numbers are thriving. And while part of the sea eagles project will be funded by the taxpayer, the RSPB argues they are likely to attract unique private funding that will not deprive other conservation projects of money.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the argument, the truth is that a quiet majority may well be in favour of seeing this majestic bird return to East Anglian skies. The local people I spoke to in Southwold who were not farmers were not opposed to its return. If this quiet majority has its way, the RSPB hopes to release the first chicks this time next year.
Which will delight Mr. Avery. “We spend too much of our time trying to stop bad things happening,” he says. “This is a good thing we could be making happen – it’s finishing off habitat restoration by putting back the last species that cannot get back here on its own . . . it’s a great project, and everybody ought to be excited by it.”