Published: 29/05/2014 17:18 - Updated: 29/05/2014 17:37

Where eagles dare, that's where you'll find Jim

Jim Crumley
Jim Crumley

IN 26 years of nature writing, Jim Crumley has written 26 books — earning the accolade of "the best nature writer working in Britain today" from the Los Angeles Times.

Yet of all these books, Dundee born Crumley reckons his latest, The Eagle’s Way, feels the most important.

Inspired by the return of the sea eagle to Scotland’s skies it looks at a relationship between birds and humans that dates back to the Stone Age.

You can meet Jim this weekend at events at Aigas and in Grantown, but first he shared his love of eagles and concerns about the future of Scotland’s natural environment.

You’ve described The Eagle’s Way as feeling like one of the most important books of your 26 year nature writing career. What makes it, or the subject, so vital?

Eagles — especially golden eagles — occupy a very special place in the Scottish psyche. We respond differently to them than to any other species.

It is pushing it to say that we think of them almost as sacred, but it’s not pushing it that much. In the course of writing The Eagle’s Way I spent some time at the Tomb of the Eagles in Orkney, where the bones of people and sea eagles have been interred together. I was very moved by the place and it offered me a new kind of understanding about the nature of our relationship with eagles, and perhaps that was the seedbed right there, and 5000 years later something of what blossomed there still persists.

I’ve watched golden eagles for more than 30 years, sea eagles, for a lot less, but their reintroduction into my native landscape on the Tay estuary helped to deepen the very personal nature of my engagement with the eagle book.

What impact has the re-introduction of sea-eagles had on the wider Scottish environment? Are they competing with golden eagles and ospreys etc, or taking livestock from farmers, as is sometimes claimed?

It will be a while before we understand the impact of sea eagles on our environment. I do think that within the next 20 years there is a good chance that the sea eagle will once again outnumber the golden eagle, a situation that was the historical norm. When that happens we will perhaps have a better understanding.

What we have done is reintroduce a serious predator at the top of the food chain, but because it is a generalist in its diet and in its choice of habitat it is an incredibly adaptable bird, and so its impact is harder to pin down, unlike the golden eagle which is such a specialist. The sea eagle is more than happy to come in among human settlements, so we will be seeing a lot more of them in the years ahead as the numbers grow. There is no doubt that it will take some livestock. There is also no doubt that many of the complaints on that score are overstated. Competition with golden eagles is restricted to the fact that a sea eagle might bully a golden eagle off a kill, but in any skirmishes in flight between the species, the golden eagle is an infinitely superior flier. Perhaps as sea eagle numbers rise territories might become an issue in a few places, but I don’t see a major problem.

Ospreys might lose occasional chicks to sea eagles because their nests are so exposed, but there is a long history in Scotland of all three species coexisting and thriving; their real problems are with people, not each other.

Another re-introduced bird species, the red kite, is having a hard time of it close to us in the Black Isle where they seem to be the bulk of victims of this recent spate of bird poisonings. What do you think lies at the root cause of these crimes? And what can we do to prevent them in future?

I wish I understood what motivates such crimes. We have a grim inheritance in parts of the Scottish countryside, a Victorian hangover, estates which deploy the crudest of tactics against anything with a hooked beak, anything that falls within the scope of that ugliest of words, "vermin".

The central thrust of it all is that anything which is inconvenient for those estates’ management priorities is killed. The grouse moor and the deer forest are the most unnatural landscapes in the country, and among some of the most unnatural in the world. And some farmers and crofters having a hard time will blame almost anything in nature before they reconsider their own practices.

What can be done to prevent such crimes? I think it might start to change if the courts were to jail a few factors and landowners rather than simply fine a keeper who is often doing what he has been told to do. Also, I think time will help, because public opinion is unquestionably changing, rewilding is in the air and moving up the political agenda, and the days of grouse moor and deer forest are numbered.

What lessons do you think have been learned from the sea-eagle re-introduction programme that can be passed on for other species? And are there any species you would love to see introduced to the Highlands? Or would dread to see making a comeback?

Reintroducing birds is very different from reintroducing mammals, so it is difficult to make direct comparisons. The sea eagle reintroduction seems to me to have been well handled, and handled boldly at that. The beaver trial reintroduction in Knapdale has been desperately timid by comparison, and the success of the mysterious beaver population on Tayside demonstrates how much better nature is at organising such events than bureaucracy is.

The next mammal on conservation’s wish list seems to be the lynx. The only reservation I have about that is what impact it might have on our precarious wildcat population.

 I would love to see the wolf back. That’s the one that makes real sense and creates real opportunities for nature at every level, and we as a species would be given thought provoking lessons in the art of deer management! I would also like to see European brown bears back, and cranes.

What do you feel are the biggest threats to the Scottish environment?

See question 3 above, and add the desperately ill-advised proliferation of land-based wind farms. They destroy land, fragment habitats, wreck natural drainage systems, and they kill birds, and there are still thousands of applications for new wind farms in the pipeline.


A sea eagle off Mull. Phto: Jacob Spinks.
A sea eagle off Mull. Phto: Jacob Spinks.

Has writing about the natural world altered the way you respond to the outdoors?

Yes it has, and in many, many ways. In particular, it has deepened immeasurably my appreciation of wildness by teaching me to see better. The way to understand wild creatures – any wild creatures – is simply to spend time with them, to watch them go about their daily business on their own terms. Almost everything I write begins with a landscape, and it becomes ever clearer to me that the health of the landscape is the key to everything. I believe now that if you could ask nature itself what would be the single most important thing we could do in Scotland to restore the health of the landscape, it would tell us to put back the wolf. I am very lucky to have been published as much as I have – The Eagle’s Way is my 26th book, and I have a weekly column in The (Dundee) Courier and a monthly column in The Scots Magazine. That is a lot of opportunity to advance nature’s cause, and a lot of opportunity to re-evaluate old opinions in the light of new knowledge and better understanding.

• Jim Crumley will join Sir John Lister-Kaye and well known ornithologist Roy Dennis for an evening of sea eagles at the Aigas Field Centre near Beauly on Friday.

He is also appearing in Grantown on Saturday as part of the Walk on The Wild Side nature writing festival organised by The Bookmark Bookshop, alongside fellow authors Mike Cawthorne, Derek McGinn, John Murray, Ruary Mackenzie Dobbs, Linda Cracknell and Sara Maitland.

For more information on the event see here

The Eagle’s Way is published by Saraband Books, priced £12.99.

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