Sea eagles reintroduced to Scotland are preying on healthy lambs, it has been formally acknowledged for the first time.
Crofters have long believed that the birds of prey will kill and eat very young sheep, but public bodies behind the reintroduction of sea eagles have finally admitted that it is the case.
The white-tailed eagle is the largest bird of prey in the UK and the fourth largest eagle in the world.
Its wingspan can be almost 2.5 meters in length, standing at a height of almost a meter and were reintroduced in Scotland using birds from Norway, in 1975 and 1985 – with further releases this century.
Breeding in Scotland has now been so successful that there are an estimated 130 pairs of White-tailed Eagles spread across the west Highland coast and islands.
But warnings have been issued that should the number of sea eagles increase, the livelihoods of crofters will be affected – impacting the most eco-friendly form of farming.
Scottish Natural Heritage has finally admitted the eagles are swooping on lambs – an acknowledgement described as “long overdue” by the Scottish Crofting Federation.
And the National Farmers’ Union for Scotland said that one farm alone lost 181 healthy lambs to sea eagles, between 2012 and 2018.
Chairman of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Yvonne White, said: “SCF is closely involved in trying to address the sea eagle issue, which results in sometimes devastating losses to crofters all along the western seaboard.
“So it is useful for all to see the sea eagle management plan published.
“We particularly welcome the fact that SNH has quite unequivocally stated that healthy lambs are taken.
“This has been long overdue and is the first time that SNH and, by implication, RSPB, who also sit on the national stakeholders’ group, have so publicly acknowledged this without reservations.
“It is something that crofters have known for the best part of 20 years.
“While we acknowledge the readiness of SNH and RSPB to engage intensively with crofting interests, we still have a long way to go before a mutually acceptable balance can be found between crofters managing sheep on extensive hill grazings and conservation of sea eagles.
“We have had too many cases already of crofters having to abandon their use of valuable hill grazing, increasing pressure on their scarce in-bye and leading to greatly increased feed bills.
“Yet this method of extensive, low-input sheep husbandry is at the heart of the High Nature Value Farming model which is so beneficial for both upland biodiversity and reducing the carbon footprint of sheep farming in Scotland.
“SCF is also concerned that an increase in sea eagle numbers and the further expansion of their range may result in ever more crofters’ flock predation across the Highlands and Islands.
“We are worried that the current level of support for eagle predation-affected crofters will not be sufficiently expanded to keep pace with this increase in the impacted area.
“We therefore recently joined with other organisations in writing to the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham, to urge her to at least maintain the current level of funding for SNH’s sea eagle work.
“However, we believe that more imaginative and far-reaching measures will need to be funded by government over the next five to ten years if crofters and farmers are going to receive the kind of effective help that will enable them to properly cope with the impacts of sea eagle predation.”
NFU Scotland President Andrew McCornick said: “We thank SNH for the publication of these documents, which clearly recognise that the diet of white tailed eagles, in some locations, includes healthy sheep and lambs.
“For some of our farming and crofting members on the west coast of Scotland, predation by white-tailed eagles of lambs and, in some cases, adult sheep, is an unwelcome threat to their future viability.”