THE south of Scotland could support more than twice the number of golden eagles currently thought to live there.

It is widely assumed the species is found only in the Highlands and Islands, but according to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) one or two pairs are trying to breed in Galloway, along with one to three pairs in the Borders.

A new SNH report has found that, with suitable conditions, many more breeding golden eagle pairs could inhabit the south of the country, suggesting it could sustain between 11 and 16 pairs.

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Duncan Orr-Ewing, head of species and land management for RSPB Scotland, said the report clearly showed "the desperately low level of occupation by golden eagles of eminently suitable habitat across the southern uplands of Scotland".

He added: "We need to see more work now to create conditions for re-colonisation by golden eagles."

However, he said they would have to protected from human persecution, which remains a significant threat to the species.

The total Scottish golden eagle population numbers 440 pairs, mainly in the Highlands and Islands.

Professor Des Thompson of SNH said that with habitat improvements, connections could be established with the small reintroduced population in Ireland.

Douglas McAdam, chief executive of Scottish Land & Estates, said the organisation had been involved in the study from the start and would encourage land managers to work with SNH on the necessary habitat improvements.