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Malcolm Ogilvie

Red Kites (right) and White-tailed Eagles are once more breeding in the wild in Britain following successful re-introduction programmes. The Osprey is being re-introduced to England. The Chough is being considered for re-introduction to Cornwall. Other species are being considered for projects which will extend their range into former haunts.

Man has long known how to introduce new species, Canada Goose, Mandarin and Little Owl spring to mind, but bringing back species which used to occur and became extinct is a far harder, but far more worthy, aim. The first successful attempt took place rather longer ago than some people imagine, when Capercaillies were brought from Scandinavia in the 1830s and released in Scotland, to replace those which had become extinct about 50-60 years earlier. Sadly, the Capercaillie population is currently in serious decline, but at least we know that it would be possible to re-introduce it once more, if that becomes necessary.

The first attempt at re-introduction in modern times took place when four young White-tailed Eagles from Norway were released on Fair Isle. Sadly, they either wandered away or died within about a year and the experiment was not repeated there. In 1975, an ongoing programme started on the island of Rum and groups of young birds were brought in and released in following years. The first nesting attempt took place in 1983 and the first chick was reared in 1985. Progress was very slow, however, and in 1993 it was decided to bring in more young birds from Norway. This gave the necessary boost to numbers and the population now exceeds 20 breeding pairs and has spread both north and south along the west coast of Scotland.
(left - adult White-tailed eagle)

The Red Kite was the next species to which attention turned. Release sites in northern Scotland and southern England were selected and young birds brought in from Scandinavia and Spain from 1989 onwards. Breeding in the wild took place in England in 1991 and in Scotland a year later and there are now well-established populations in both areas, with additional releases taking place in further sites. Most recently, young Ospreys have been taken from nests in Scotland and released at Rutland Water in eastern England and it looks as if breeding will take place there in the near future.

Reintroductions of this kind can only take place under licence from the appropriate government agency and internationally agreed criteria, regarding, for example, the source of the birds and the suitability of the release area, must be satisfied. Having successfully brought back two raptor species which man drove into extinction, it is perhaps natural that attention should turn to other possibilities, and not just birds. Beavers will very soon be released in Scotland and there are certainly those who would like to see wolves follow them. But they, perhaps fortunately, are outside the scope of this article!

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Dr Ogilvie is a natural history writer and editor, formerly a research scientist with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and resident on the island of Islay since 1986. Until 1997, a member of the 'British Birds' editorial board and also one of the editorial team which produced 'Birds of the Western Palearctic'.