The sun disappears a while before it sets over Haweswater reservoir part of the coast to coast trail; the sides of the glacial valley in which it sits blocking the light and casting an ethereal gloom over the water and surrounding hills. A night spent here is full of ghosts; the hamlet of Mardale Green was demolished and drowned in the 1930s to make way for the reservoir and it is said you can still hear the church bell ringing from beneath the surface. If you listen closely enough you may also hear the cry of the last Golden Eagle in England, whose nest (known as an eyrie) was built into crags above the lake. For a while the valley was host to the last breeding pair of these eagles in England, sadly both male and female are now believed to have either died or abandoned the site.
The valley is a classic nesting site for the Golden Eagle, with high crags and little traffic passing through. It must have been quite a thrill to watch them riding the thermal currents or swooping down to grab their prey of small mammals and birds from the ground. However, much like their once common ancestors, the pair would have suffered habitat disruption and a loss of prey from human activity as well as potential poisoning or poaching. The species in the UK is now confined to remote islands and parts of western Scotland and Ireland, becoming mostly extinct in England and Wales by the 1850s.
Our treatment of these birds in the last 200 years in the UK is strangely at odds to mankind’s reverence for them over millennia. The First Nations of North America prize them, as they do many animals, and some tribes today still perform an ‘eagle dance’ to mark and celebrate various achievements or occasions. Under US law, registered First Nation tribe members are the only ones allowed to rear eagles to produce feathers for their ceremonial headdresses. The Roman ‘Aquila’, the eagle standard carried at the head of each legion, was based on the Golden Eagle and successive nations have used the Golden Eagle as a national emblem or national animal (there are currently five countries whose national animal is the Golden Eagle). The Golden Eagle is also seen as a symbol of power in Arabic poetry, it was said to have been the emblem of Saladin, and references to eagles generally but especially Golden Eagles are common in literature around the world.
The Golden Eagle, despite its lustrous name, would not immediately seem to be the most obvious of the eagle family to be so revered. It’s not the biggest eagle in the UK, the similarly endangered White-Tailed Eagle claiming that prize. It is not the fastest bird of prey, rarely swooping from great heights to catch its prey of small mammals and birds but preferring to fly low over the ground instead. As with most eagles a breeding pair will be monogamous and will mate for life or until either bird dies; both male and female of this species help build their eyrie and will return to the same two or three nest sites over the course of their life. These eyries can be quite impressive, the largest ever found in the UK being some 4.6 metres deep and in use for around 45 years.
To see a Golden Eagle in flight is still one of the best wildlife experiences you can have in the UK. One recent client, of our West Highland Way trek, told us that the highlight of her trip had been seeing one of these eagles over Fort William. Watching them, holding their wings in a casual V-shape and floating up and down on thermals, is to immediately connect with something timeless. The Celts believed that they were the oldest of living birds and were often deities or mythological figures in animal form; when seen in flight you can understand why.
If you are lucky enough to see their mating ritual, known as a sky-dance, you get a sense of their power as the male plunges up and down in a series of steep rises and dives. If you are luckier still to see one up close, to catch a glimpse of the flash of gold around its head that may have given it its name, you also get a sense of the beauty that comes with their powerful physique and predatory manner.
The Golden Eagle remains in a critical state in the UK, without enough land to have an effective ‘home range’ and still beset by illegal poaching (possibly to protect grouse estates) or accidental poisoning. So, if you are lucky enough to see these beautiful raptors on a trip to Scotland take the time to enjoy it and the majesty of this bird.
About the Author
Ed Terry is a qualified Mountain Leader who has been working as an outdoor instructor both guiding adult groups and working with young people in schools or on overseas expeditions. An accomplished traveller, Ed discovered a love for trekking in the canyons and mountains of South America and has since applied this to the hills and trails of the UK. He is a passionate environmentalist and can often be found mending footpaths, dry-stone walling or running educational sessions on conservation issues.