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Baby whale comes to London and eagles soar nationwide

A young minke whale has arrived in the Thames just in time to celebrate Sadiq Khan’s re-election, while in Norfolk Britain’s largest bird of prey, the white-tailed eagle, is being reintroduced after over a century of absence, writes PETER FROST

LAST week’s violent storms on the south and east coast seems to have separated a baby minke whale from its mother and drive the baby into the Thames.

Minke whale calves suckle for up to 10 months. Minkes measure up to nine feet (2.8 metres) at birth so it maybe our baby river whale was missing his mother’s milk.

The animal swam through London as far as Richmond Lock in south-west London last Sunday and became trapped on the lock’s rollers used by rowing boats to avoid using the lock. The plucky baby whale had swum further up the Thames than any whale had ever reached before.

Video showed the 13 foot (4m) whale being hosed down by a woman from the Port of London Authority (PLA) while a vet and a marine biologist performed a check-up at the river’s edge. They were not able to establish the young whale’s gender.

Fire crews, a life boat from Chiswick and many other organisations arrived at the scene to join the hundreds of curious onlookers who had turned up on Sunday evening.

By 1am Monday morning the whale had been encouraged out of the narrow lock. It swam towards Teddington and Chiswick before turning round to head back towards Richmond.

PLA staff control the river at this point. Along with lifeboat and fire service staff they managed to tow the whale downriver using an inflatable pontoon device rather like a giant airbed, but the whale wriggled free near Isleworth.

Experts believed the clearly malnourished whale may have been injured and were unsure if it could make it on its own to the sea 95 miles downriver.

Finally the baby whale was trapped by a falling tide near Teddington where experts provided inflatable supports. For some hours it lay immobile. The kindest solution was to euthanise the distressed animal. A vet from London Zoological Society put an end the minke whale’s suffering.

Minke whales are the smallest of the great whales and can grow up to about 35 ft (10 m) long. They are occasionally seen around the British coast but are actually found in oceans all over the world. They prefer cooler temperatures and coastal and inshore waters.

Usually solitary creatures, minkes are relatively fast swimmers. In winter they find warmer waters to breed. In summer move to colder polar waters rich with food. Their range extends from the edge of the Arctic ice in summer during and the tropics in winter.

Whales have been visiting the Thames for centuries but visits are rare. In 1456 William Caxton sighted a “grete fish” in London’s river; in 1788, 17 sperm whales came ashore on the lower reaches; 1791 saw sailors from Greenwich chasing and killing a killer whale at Deptford; a 58-foot fin whale was dragged ashore at Gravesend in 1849.

Early last year a sperm whale got caught in the Thames estuary on the Isle of Sheppey in Swale, Kent. Attempts to free the animal failed and the whale died of natural causes brought on by starvation. 
In 2019, a humpback whale died in the Thames just 11 days after it was first sighted. The juvenile female had been travelling back and forth over a stretch of five miles after it was first sighted near Dartford Bridge in Kent before it was found dead by rescuers. An autopsy found the mammal was starved and riddled with intestinal parasites.

In November 2019, a PLA patrol boat discovered a 26ft (8m) dead minke whale washed up underneath Battersea Bridge.

Earlier that same year, a very rare white Arctic beluga whale was spotted near Gravesend, Kent. The beluga had been seen in the river in 2018. Indeed I reported this very rare animal in these pages.

These large white whales can grow up to 18ft (5.5m) long and weigh up to 3,530lb (1,600kg). They normally live in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, so this beluga was a long way from home.

Whales aren’t adapted to life in fresh water so healthy whales normally only stay in our rivers for a short time. They need between 20 and 50 pounds (9 to 22kg) of fish a day.

Campaigns to clean the Thames has bought back much more than salmon and trout — even seahorses are found in the estuary — but it is still difficult for a whale to find enough to eat.

Soar with the eagles

Two decades ago I served as the secretary of state’s representative on the Broads National Park Authority. One item that regularly cropped up on our agenda were plans to reintroduce the white-tailed sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla).

We could never agree; I was always in favour, keen to see these huge soaring giants — extinct in England for over a century — high above the broads and rivers again — but landowners, representing the many pheasant and partridge shoots, always vigorously opposed any reintroduction.

The white-tailed eagle is Britain’s largest bird of prey. Its wingspan is over eight feet (2.5m). It has brown body plumage with a conspicuously pale head and neck. Adult tail feathers are white.

White-tailed eagles are opportunistic hunters and carrion feeders. They sometimes steal food from other birds and even otters. When fishing, they fly low over water, hover for a moment and dive to snatch fish from the surface. They eat mostly fish, but also an occasional bird, rabbit or hare. During the breeding season while they are rearing young, they will need up to two pounds (500-600g) of fish or meat every day.

In 2019, 240 years after they were last recorded breeding in the country, the Isle of Wight reintroduced three pairs. The last known breeding pair in England was recorded at Culver Cliff on the island in 1780. The 2019 Isle of Wight experiment proved so successful that the eagles are, at last, to be reintroduced to Norfolk.

Natural England has issued a licence to the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation for a 10-year reintroduction at Wild Ken Hill near Snettisham in west Norfolk, starting in 2022. The licence will allow up to 60 juvenile birds to be released over a 10-year period.

It is hoped this will establish a small breeding population of six to 10 pairs. The eagles will come from Poland, where there are more than 1,000 pairs. Due to Covid-19 restrictions the birds will not arrive until next year.

Dominic Buscall, manager at Wild Ken Hill, said: “We are delighted to have the go-ahead to bring back white-tailed eagles to eastern England.”

He said following a public consultation he was “overwhelmed by the support we have received from all sectors.”

A similar sea eagle reintroduction scheme in Scotland has proved to be a success, with more than 130 breeding pairs. Scottish specialist raptor conservationist Roy Dennis said: “This is the next logical step to restore this magnificent bird to England and compliments efforts across Europe to help the species.”

Twenty years ago I did see very occasional sea eagles flying over our national park, but these were birds that had made epic hundreds of miles journeys from Shetland or Scandinavia.
Last year sea eagles from the Isle of Wight, Scotland and from Europe were spotted flying over Norfolk where the coast and quiet woodland nesting spots are ideal locations for sea eagles.

Further reintroductions are likely. Perhaps it won’t be long before we see these magnificent huge birds of prey fishing over other visiting whales in Old Father Thames.


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