By Pamela McGowan

HOPES of seeing golden eagles return to Cumbria have been bolstered after the first new birds were released in southern Scotland.

The project aims to strengthen breeding, bringing chicks from the Highlands to establish in the Dumfries area.

If successful it could see the iconic golden eagle move back into England, and potentially Cumbria.

England's last remaining golden eagle lived at Riggindale, near Haweswater, until it disappeared two years ago.

It was never found and many feared it had been killed, though experts say is likely the ageing bird died of natural causes.

The male bird had lived there since 2001 and was estimated to be about 20 years old. His mate died 12 years earlier, and despite regular springtime displays, failed to attract a new female.

Following his death, the RSPB began habitat restoration work around Haweswater to make it more attractive to golden eagles in future.

Now with numbers growing north of the border, conservationists say it is the best chance yet to bring the birds back to the Lake District.

The £1.3m South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project has initially seen three young birds released at a secret location in the Moffat hills.

Golden eagles are the second largest bird in the UK, beaten only by the white-tailed sea eagle. They tend to live in wild, open moorlands and mountains across Scotland, with a preference for more remote areas.

Roy Armstrong, programme leader for zoology at the University of Cumbria, is watching the project carefully.

He and his students have close links with those at the South of Scotland Golden Eagle Project, and he believes that it really could see the birds moving back into England in future years.

However he is concerned that if that happens, they would face persecution from landowners, as was the case in the past.

"The south of Scotland project is brilliant. I'm totally in favour of it, though there is a bit of a difference between Cumbria and south Scotland. There has been a long-running hearts and minds campaign there, and a lot of landowners are very much on board," he said.

"But here, we have to look at what happened to our own golden eagles. Two females both disappeared in mysterious circumstances and the male was left displaying on his own."

"It should be very positive for the south of Scotland, but I'm deeply concerned about what happens when they cross the border."

He points the finger for eagle persecution at the grouse moors, but said it is currently difficult to catch those responsible - and said the Scottish law offers stronger protection than in England.

However he said the new Scottish eagles will have satellite trackers, which will mean that if a bird disappears, they will know where.

He is also hopeful that new battery technology will further improve monitoring of birds in the future.

"It should be very positive for the south of Scotland, but I am deeply concerned about what happens when they cross the border."

However he hopes that, if these issues are overcome, the birds could re-establish themselves in Cumbria - and help boost tourism.

"To me it's not about these individual birds that have been released. The main point is that we will hopefully get more breeding pairs.

"There are 10 coming in total I think. Even if they don't come here, their offspring might," he explained.

"That's already happened in other programmes. The sea eagle that we saw on the Solway was from the Scottish reintroduction programme. That brings in millions into the economy in places like Mull."

Prior to their release, the eagle chicks - named Edward, Beaky and Emily -were collected from Scottish Natural Heritage and taken their new home in the Moffat Hills.

The birds were then cared for in specially-designed release aviaries and fed through the autumn/winter period to help them adjust to their new habitat.

The aim is to help bolster the golden eagle population in the area, where breeding has declined.

Bringing in birds from elsewhere will help strengthen the gene pool, making them more likely to thrive.

Project manager Cat Barlow said they are working closely with the local population to raise awareness of golden eagles, and the benefits they can bring to the region.

"In the years ahead, many people will have the opportunity to learn more about the golden eagle and its role in Scotland's biodiversity.

"I hope it will continue to inspire and empower them to safeguard its existence for future generations," she said.