LAMB LOSSES to sea eagles around Crianlarich are forcing one hill farming family to consider giving up their best hirsel to forestry.

Situated at the 'gateway to the Scottish Highlands', Peter Christie's Lochdochart farm has been in the family since 1906, and currently carries 650 mainly Cheviot sheep across three well-established hirsels.

However, three years ago sea eagles arrived in the area, and the suspicion since has been that the voracious predator has vastly increased lamb losses.

But earlier this month that debate was put to bed, as Mr Christie's shepherd witnessed a pair of sea eagles attack and kill a three-month old lamb, 'within shouting distance'.

"We've had suspicious losses before, but this is the first time that we know it was definitely sea eagles," said Mr Christie. "Lambs do go missing between lambing and the next gather, so it is hard to tell, but we have lost 50 or 60 in that time. Of course the sea eagle would probably get the carcases of those lost to other causes anyway, but seeing this attack on a big lamb confirms that many of these losses are a direct result of the birds."

Lochdochart's shepherd was out on the hill looking after a young heifer on July 15th. The shepherd saw the two sea eagles descend on a 'fit and healthy' three-month-old lamb, ripping it open and consuming it as he watched.

But what eloquently made the point about the eagles' appetite was when the heifer was checked the next day, it had unexpectedly produced a stillborn calf, and that too had been ripped open and eaten by the sea eagles.

"What that tells us is that the lamb wasn't enough – it didn’t last them 24 hours before they were hungry again," said Mr Christie.

"We simply aren't producing enough lambs to cope with that level of predation and stay in business. One a day? We can't produce 365 lambs for them."

Mr Christie plans to contact NatureScot to let the conservation body know that the reintroduced species is active in his area, but holds out little hope that the available schemes for farmers experiencing predation will make any difference to the basic problem.

"Offering us money won't save us – bought-in replacement lambs wouldn't be hefted to these hills. That is a crucial part of our system – and the eagles are hitting our western hirsel, which is the best hill we've got."

Lochdochart was, he said, now at 'the western frontier' of sheep farming in the area, as many farms further west had given up the ghost and gone.

"There is the argument that Britain doesn't eat enough lamb, so the government doesn't value the sector as a food provider," he mused. "But sheep keep the ground the way people like to see it, and create a landscape, rather than abandoned land. But for the sake of our business, we must now look towards a change of use on that western hirsel, and there is no shortage of official support for forestry."

A NatureScot spokesperson responded: “NatureScot administer the Sea Eagle Management scheme on behalf of the National Stakeholder Group. We are not aware of any issues with white tailed eagles on this farm. Neither NatureScot or the panel, including NFUS colleagues, have been contacted by the farmer claiming to have problems. However if there are issues we are happy to discuss these with him."

The agency added that it considered the reintroduction of the species to have been successful and of particular benefit to tourism: "However, in some locations, sea eagles impact farming and crofting by predating lambs. NatureScot understand the concerns of farmers and crofters, and we continue to work closely with them, and a range of stakeholders at local and national level, to offer management support through the Sea Eagle Management Scheme and to trial management techniques which can help reduce these negative impacts."