The Mystery of Eagles in Wales

Published:16th October 2018

Old Golden Eagle.JPG

It's been a busy month delving deep into welsh ornithological history searching for old eagle records and visiting museum collections across South Wales. We have had a fantastic response for our 'Where Eagles Lived' Project! We now have a number of historic records that have not been recorded in previous research, this success can be attributed to the following of the welsh community and knowledge of your local communities, and we are very grateful you your records and support!

As we are still collecting data, I thought it may be a good idea to share what we have found out about the history of Eagles in Wales so far. 

Golden Eagle, Eryr Euriad, (Aquila chrysaetos)

The Golden Eagle was at one time unquestionably common all over Wales, The Golden Eagle is regularly mentioned in early Welsh literature and illustrated as a symbol of power, imaginably reflecting the eagles prominent symbol during the roman times in Britain, The Golden Eagle is a bird of myth and legend, although it has been difficult, especially many of our earlier eagle records, to establish if these records refer to present-day-wales, as the 'Welsh' country as it is today used to  extend up covering ranges of south-west England (Liverpool, Leeds and Kendal) up to Southern Scotland (Stranraer and Glasgow). 

Archaeological remains of the eagle have been found in 10 locations around Wales. The limitation with many of these early records, the Golden Eagle (GE) is not distinguished between the White-tailed Eagle (WTE). Here are some of our archaeological records:  3 x bones potentially WTE dated back to 75-85 AD found in a well excavated in Caerleon: The Legionary Museum Site; Eagle remains dated back to the Devensian period found in a cave at Perthi-Chwaren near Llandegla, Denbigshire; Golden Eagle remains found at Cat Hole Cave, Gower and WTE remains in Port-Eynon Cave in Swansea; 

We also have a number of historic records for nesting Golden Eagles in Wales. During the 1600s John Leland's writings (1840) clearly state a pair of breeding GE nesting in close proximity of Castle Dinas Bran, Llangollen, Denbigshire. Leland states "There bredith on the rock side that the Castelle stondith on every yere an Egle, and the Egle doth sorely assaut him that desroith the nest by going down in one basket and having another over his hedde to defend the sore stripe of the Egle". In modern English Leland states the presence of breeding eagles in this region, which is great, but on the other hand states how he destroys the nest and protects his head from the strike of adult eagles! 

The Botanist Thomas Johnson also tells us in his writing how, when out plant-collecting in North Wales in 1639, he could not persuade a native who was their guide to lead him up the Carnedd Llewellyn mountain due to rustic dread of the eagle which nested there. Later records in the late 1700s, according to Thomas Pennant, Golden Eagles were only a very occasional breeder in the Snowdon range. We have eagle references for the Snowdon range in north Wales up until the 1860s. We can confidently say that this location would have been when GE breeding ceased in Wales, this was the last GE nest in Wales. 

The former existence  of the Eagle in other parts of Wales is also suggested by such place-names as Tap Nyth yr Eryr (Eagle's nest top) in Montgomeryshire; Allt yr Eryr (Stream of the Eagle) in Powys; and lets not forget 'Creigiau'r Eryri' (Rocks of the Eagles) the welsh name for the Snowdonia Range, possibly derived from 'Eryr' the word for ''Eagle'. 

Golden Eagles were recorded from south Wales until the 1800s but the lack of confirmed sightings suggest they had been extinct as a breeding species here and the later records referred to immature wandering eagles raging down from the north. This is backed up by the lack of place-names after this species in the south. I would imagine the high peak expanses of the Brecon Beacons would have been important habitats for young golden eagles during this time when these areas were much less accessible to humans and before the invention of the gun. 

We  have a few historic persecution records for Wales, which were extracted from old newspapers dated between 1806-1900s. Most of our persecution records are from north, we only have a handful of records for south and west wales including; a young GE killed at Penpont near Brecon around 1859; a GE killed by a farmer of Gollangoch Eglwyswrw, near Cardigan in 1908; and  on older record of a GE killed near Llansanwr in Glamorgan in 1776. 

During the more recent times, the majority of records have come from North Wales. A Golden Eagle was sighted in July 1909 being chased by buzzards and raven over Cwm Bychan (Merioneth). There has also been sightings near Llanuwchllyn in September 1923 and June 1967, and a young eagle near Trawsfynydd in November 1965. Unsubstantial records of Golden Eagles that we are looking into have also been claimed from Tre'r-ddol in Cardiganshire during July 1965 and near Tretwr in Breconshire during 1938. 

To conclude the Welsh history of the Golden Eagle, we should end it with the Ramsey Eagles. In 1915, two birds which had been kept in captivity on Skomer, Pembrokshire. One was sadly shot soon after on the mainland near Marloes but the other GE lived on Skomer for 13 years and was seen quite far afield before it moved to Ramsey Island in 1928. A mate was provided from London Zoo in June 1929 but this Eagle, a female, was found drowned on the mainland coast opposite the Island in November 1929. The remaining GE survived until March 1932 when it was shot by a farmer n Ramsey who alleged it was killing lambs, the final irony in this sad tale being the fact that this bird was also a female! 

White-tailed Eagle, Eryr y Mor (Haliaeetus albicilla) 

White-tailed Eagles bred in Britain until 1916 when the last confirmed breeding took place on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. The extinction of the WTE in Britain can be attributed to human persecution. The WTE breeding population was re-established in 1975 from a successful reintroduction scheme initiated by the Nature Conservancy Trust. 

We only have one breeding record for WTE in Wales, this record was found in an old newspaper article dated 1828, where the article states a WTE had been shot by the principle game keeper at C.R.M Talbot Estate The locals believed that this eagle was the mate of a breeding pair in Kenfig who had been breeding there since 1816. Vague historic records of eagles possibly nesting in Wales more likely refer to Golden Eagles although it is impossible to be certain either way! What we can tell you is that we have come across more regular historic records for WTE sightings that GE in late 1800s through to the early 1900s, advocating that GE probably became extinct before the WTE in Wales, or simultaneously both species became extinct around the mid 1800s. 

Nevertheless,  sightings after breeding ceased in the early - mid 1800s, were of regular occurrence in Wales. Still to this date WTE are often sighted in North Wales, the most recent being in July 2017 in Criccieth. We have 17 historic records of WTE in Wales between 1818 and 1910 covering all aspects of Wales apart from Radnorshire and Monmouthshire.

Place-names for WTE include; Foel Eryr (Eagle's Peak) a high point of the Presely range in Pembrokshire. We have 77 place-names in reference to Eagles in Wales, these place-names do not indicate what species of eagle they refer to. ERW are, however, using this data to create habitat models to separate the both species in order to define our search for areas to release these birds and continue our feasibility analysis in more concise regions of Wales. 

White-tailed Eagles have often featured in old welsh poems. Here are three examples of this; WTE are mentioned in 'Canu Heledd', 'Eryr Eli' and 'Eryr Pengwern'. These poems highlight that the eagles are seen in coastal woods, eating carrion and fish, with mentions of two bloodthirsty white-tailed eagles whom eat the carrion of dead soldiers (Grim!). We are searching more intensively for dates for these poems to add into our 'Where Eagles Lived' project data. 

Concluding notes 

Hopefully, you have enjoyed reading about what we have found out about eagles in Wales over the last month. We look forward to sharing more blogs and results with you over the upcoming weeks. We are focusing on the historic distribution of Eagles at the moment, as we are restricted by IUCN reintroduction guidelines to look in-depth at where these eagles once were in Wales. When we have completed our historic data-set we will then be able to select areas of Wales to further assess the feasibility of reintroducing Eagles into these areas. 

The 'Where Eagles Lived?' Project is running until February 2018, so if you have any Eagle records from books, newspapers, place-names or any other interesting facts about Eagles in your local community, get in touch! Email us at: