Published: December 3, 2021 | Updated: December 3, 2021

Schoolchildren ‘witness history’ as eagle with eight-foot wingspan is viewed on harbour trip

The white-tailed eagle pictured flying over Middlebere in Poole Harbour. Picture: Kate Plater.
By Andrew Diprose, editor

It’s a sight which will stay in the memories of a group of schoolchildren for quite possibly the rest of their lives.

A white-tailed eagle, a species that hasn’t been permanent in Southern Britain for nearly three centuries, flying over Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour.

The children, from Longfleet Church of England Primary School in Poole, were taking part in the School Bird Boat Project when the eagle flew out over the Brownsea Lagoon past the  group.

The project is carried out annually by local charity Birds of Poole Harbour and funded by Poole-based company Lush.

The eagle, known as G461, is a two-year old male and was released onto the Isle of Wight in 2020 as part of a pioneering reintroduction programme hosted by the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation and Forestry England in a bid to try and restore a population of the huge birds of prey.

White-tailed eagles, which have adopted the nickname ‘flying barn doors’ because of their broad eight-foot wingspan, haven’t been present as a breeding species in England for almost 300 years despite previously being widespread.

The cause of their demise was down to human persecution and they never recovered.

However, it’s hoped that with the reintroduction programme underway, there’s now every chance the majestic birds will soon become a regular sight over Dorset skies over the coming years as the project progresses and the eagles start to breed.

A white-tailed eagle on the ground at Brownsea Lagoon. Picture: Stuart Pentland.

Evidence from the project has highlighted the released eagles are feeding on wild rabbits, mullet, squid, waterfowl such as wild ducks and geese and the decaying flesh of animals.

Sea eagles don’t reach sexual maturity until four or five years old so it’s unknown whether G461 is currently favouring Poole Harbour because of the abundance of food, or whether he’s potentially seeking out a future breeding territory.

Regardless, his presence has excited plenty of people with more sightings of him logged around the Arne area.

Paul Morton, of the Birds of Poole Harbour charity, pictured left, said: “There’s no words to express how significant that experience was for the children.

“They may not know it now, but they’ve witnessed history being made and the beginnings of something really special.

“Only a few years ago, the thought of seeing a white-tailed eagle over Poole Harbour was just a pipe dream, let alone the chance of experiencing it with a whole boat full of school children.

“But here we are in 2021 and that pipe dream has now become a reality with everyone from schoolchildren, locals and visitors to the area soon able to witness and experience this remarkable recovery.”

Robin Heawood, Longfleet School Site Manager, said: “The children and us as staff were so lucky to see the UK’s largest bird of prey on our trip.

This is something I’m sure they’ll never forget.

“Sea eagles have not been seen locally for hundreds of years.

“We were extremely fortunate to have witnessed it.”

Tim Mackrill, from the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, said: “We’re really excited to hear that the school group had such a wonderful experience.

“The primary aim of the project is to re-establish a breeding population of white-tailed eagles in southern England, but we also think that these amazing birds have the potential to inspire people about nature in a way that few others can.

“If the sight of the eagle encourages some of the children on the boat to take more of an interest in conservation, then that is fantastic.”