GOLDEN eagles have bred at a Highland rewilding estate for the first time in 40 years, it was revealed yesterday.

A pair of golden eagles successfully reared a chick in an artificial nest at Trees for Life’s flagship Dundreggan rewilding estate in Glenmoriston between Loch Ness and Skye.

The chick flew from the nest for the first time last week, but conservationists hope the spectacular species will now return to the site long term.

The success comes five years after a Trees for Life team and renowned conservationist Roy Dennis MBE of the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation set up an eyrie at a prime location to entice the birds of prey back.

Trees For Life, a charity dedicated to rewilding the Highlands, said there was no certainty the project would work as golden eagles build their own nests in remote and inaccessible places, and are highly sensitive to disturbance.

Doug Gilbert, Trees for Life’s Dundreggan manager, said: “This is a rewilding success story beyond our wildest dreams.

“I’ve been checking the eyrie regularly since we built it in 2015, hoping to see evidence that the eagles had returned -- and now they have.

“As golden eagles may use their nesting sites for generations, we’re hoping they are back for the longterm.

“Four decades without golden eagles breeding or establishing themselves in this part of our wild and beautiful Highland glen have been four decades too long.

“When we built the artificial nest, we knew it was in a good location for eagles because we found the remains of an old nest at the site.

“We’ve been keeping our fingers crossed for the past five years, and it’s wonderful that our efforts have paid off like this.”

Golden eagles – regarded as Scotland’s national bird – are regularly seen over Dundreggan, but until now there has been no sign of them nesting or setting up a territory.

Golden eagle expert Stuart Benn, a member of the Highland Raptor Study Group, said: “This is terrific news -- the first time golden eagles have definitely bred at Dundreggan since 1980.

“Eagles are undergoing a marked expansion in the Highlands just now, recolonising ground they haven’t been on for many years and even colonising some completely new areas.”

The golden eagle is the UK’s secondlargest bird of prey, after the whitetailed eagle.

It is native to Britain, but centuries of persecution saw it driven into extinction in England and Wales by the mid-1800s.

The bird has been making a slow recovery in Scotland, though it continues to be threatened by illegal persecution, with annual reports of golden eagles being shot, poisoned or having their nests robbed.

The fourth national golden eagle survey, published in 2016, showed that Scotland’s population of the birds had increased to 508 pairs, a rise of 15 per cent since the previous survey in 2003.

Trees for Life says that a massive decline in wildlife over recent decades has left Britain one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries, and the return of such apex predators, which humans have either driven to extinction or left facing a precarious future, can play a key role in helping nature get back on its feet, including by ensuring a fully functioning food chain.

Trees for Life has been rewilding Dundreggan -- including by protecting and expanding fragments of the Caledonian Forest -- since its 2008 purchase of the 10,000-acre former deer stalking estate.

This has included restoring goldeneagle-friendly mountaintop forests of tough, waist-high “wee trees”, such as dwarf birch and downy willow.

Known as “montane” species because they can grow near mountain summits despite harsh conditions, these once-common woodlands are now rare in Scotland following centuries of overgrazing by sheep and deer.

A marked rise in black grouse numbers as habitats have recovered has also probably helped the eagles in their breeding attempt, as these are favourite prey for eagles.