The war on wedge-tailed eagles

We’ve seen this before, but now it’s time we put an end to the war on wedge-tailed eagles before this starts to have a major impact on our ecosystem, experts warn.
By Angela Heathcote June 8, 2018 Reading Time: 4 Minutes Print this page

YESTERDAY, IT WAS reported that over 100 wedge-tailed eagles had been found dead on a farm in eastern Victoria. The alleged cause of death: poisoning.

The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning confirmed that they were conducting a criminal investigation, which suggests that, in this case, the eagles were not victims of second hand poisoning, but deliberate persecution.

This isn’t the first time a case like this has emerged. With the birds living across most of mainland Australia and Tasmania, instances of these wedge-tailed eagles being shot down or poisoned have occurred all over the place.

Last year, in June the remains of four wedge-tailed eagles were discovered in the Black Range State Forest, Victoria, having been killed by gunshot.

A war against these majestic birds, mainly by farmers, has pressed on despite that they’re a protected species. Killing one of them can cost up to $8,000 in fines or even imprisonment.

According to wedge-tailed eagle expert Steve Debus, this most recent event could be a significant drain on the regional population of eagles. However, it’s not the worst he’s seen.

“There have been fairly recent cases of similar or greater numbers of eagles killed in certain locations in sheep districts of South Australia and Tasmania, despite the Tasmanian eagle population being officially listed as endangered.”

He tells Australian Geographic that a poisoning on this scale has one likely motivation.

“I’d guess the motivation could be perceived damage or possible damage to lamb flocks, if the farmer or farmers haven’t made an effort to distinguish lamb deaths by various causes from scavenging by eagles on dead lambs, versus genuine kills of live lambs by eagles.”

And it’s easy to tell the difference. “If fresh lamb bodies are examined, eagle kills leave tell-tale signs such as bruising, bleeding and talon punctures under the skin and in the skull and torso.  Weak, sick or moribund lambs, as often happens in open range conditions, even if killed by eagles, might not be viable anyway,” Steve added

wedge tailed eagle

 (Image Credit: Joslin Hartley)

Why does the myth persist?

Prior to the 1970s, wedge-tailed eagles were killed in the thousands because they were deemed pests and bounties were collected for their heads. Others were hunted for recreation. According to WA-based wedge-tailed eagle expert and environmental biologist Simon Cherriman, old habits die hard.

“It’s generational. And then this generational myth is encouraged by a conflict between perception versus reality,” he says. “They think that what they’re seeing is an accurate perception of what these eagles are doing. The classic is, ‘ This birds eating my sheep, it must be threatening my livestock’.”

Steve agrees, adding that because eagles are seen feeding on dead lambs, people jump to conclusions, when in reality these lambs most likely died overnight from a variety of potential causes like stillbirths, mismothering, starvation, predation or bad weather.

“Field studies have repeatedly shown that the true percentage of viable lambs killed by eagles is very small in relation to the number that die from other causes, and that eagle kills are economically insignificant for the industry as a whole…”

He admits that eagles are capable of killing lambs, “but the few losses of viable lambs need to be balanced against the number of perceived pest animals that eagles also take, and are preferred by breeding adult eagles including rabbits, hares, young roos, cockatoos and feral animals. These are all either introduced aliens or overabundant.”

Eagles the “white blood cells” of our ecosystem

As apex predators, wedge-tailed eagles play a critical role within our ecosystem, which is why Simon refers to them as the ‘white blood cells’ of our landscape.

“They’re drawn to an overabundance, say of rabbits or kangaroos, and they restore balance. That check is integral, and without those white blood cells we’ve got a gaping wound in our arm with nothing to stop it,” he explains.

According to Simon a viable solution to preventing even the limited amount of times eagles prey on livestock is biodiversity conservation.

“What often happens with pastoralism is we simplify ecosystems so every part of the landscape has economic value. We clear land, put sheep in and only focus on keeping animals that benefit us. But we need to focus on biodiversity conservation. This means having a huge diversity of animals in a landscape regardless of their economic value because the more diverse the ecosystem is the less likely it is that native predators will kill domestic livestock,” he explains.

“Retaining large patches of native vegetation that can support a diverse range of animals that offer alternative prey to livestock, such as kangaroos, possums and birds, is one way of solving these problems. We simply can’t clear all of the land, kill the kangaroos and rabbits, and expect these majestic eagles to eat dust.”

Image alt text

(Image Credit: Erika Karlsson)

Ending the feud

Both Simon and Steve agree that putting an end the myth of eagles preying on livestock is key, but also public education about the role these eagles play as apex predators and the legal consequence of persecuting them.

Simon believes that this most recent incident proves that spreading awareness about the illegality of killing wedge-tailed eagles demonstrates that people are becoming more aware. “It’s very possible that someone has gone ‘this isn’t right’ and reported it. And now you’ve got the public outrage behind it as well, which is also important.”

Steve, on the other hand, finds hope in the younger generation of Australians. “The older generation of traditional eagle persecutors, and their myths are being replaced by a younger generation of more tolerant, understanding and appreciative landholders, so there are probably only a few rogue and maverick operators who still illegally poison carcasses to kill predators.”