SCOTLAND'S growing population of sea eagles and the threat they pose to the sheep sector has been highlighted as the industry enters a new lambing season.

Awkward questions are being asked of the Scottish Government and Scottish Natural Heritage who, in the opinion of sea eagle management groups in the Highlands and Islands, have so far failed to deliver an acceptable management plan for the reintroduced species.

SNH and RSPB Scotland are also being queried as to why they have failed to monitor the impact of the sea eagle population on native avian and mammal species in the release areas, amidst local reports that the supposedly pescatarian predators are eating anything they can catch.

Research commissioned by SNH predicted that the number of sea eagles in Scotland will rise from 106 pairs of birds to 221 pairs in less than 10 years, and that by 2040, there could potentially be between 889 and 1005 pairs at large.

Argyllshire farmer and former Scottish NSA chairwoman Sybil MacPherson warned that this population growth had to be effectively managed or sheep farming would be driven off the hills.

"Many farmers and crofters have already ceased breeding sheep on land which has been affected by predation over the last number of years," said Mrs MacPherson. "Some have been able to adjust their sheep management but in many cases, breeding ewes have disappeared from the most heavily affected areas.

"This has resulted in loss of businesses and resulted in land abandonment in some areas. As the population of birds is clearly increasing at a faster rate than anyone could have predicted in some areas, the problems associated with an unsustainable population of the birds are escalating at an alarming and completely devastating rate."

Calls are being made for more to be done, not only at lambing time when the sea eagles main threat is to new born lambs and their mothers, but throughout the summer months and beyond, as many farmers believe that sea eagles, when hungry, will turn their focus to older, stronger lambs, and even to hoggs, for many months of the year.

Sybil, who sits on her local sea eagle management group, also queried the validity of some of the SNH report's findings: "The report showed the expected increase in breeding pairs, but it did not mention the number of immature birds – sea eagles are five or six before they reach maturity – so it really only shows the tip of the iceberg when you consider the number of actual birds in the sea eagle population. We need a management plan that includes actions to deal with predation where passive measures have failed," she insisted.

"It is regrettable that the hierarchy of NFUS and others have, in my opinion, given insufficient importance to this problem. There seems to be a lack of understanding of the problem. Financial loss is only part of the difficulties.

"The fact that people quite rightly find the losses of sheep and lambs by dog worrying unacceptable, frustrates those of us who continually have suffered similar impacts to our flocks, and have done for many years," she added. "It seems as if no-one who has not experienced the problem has any realisation of the difficulties of sheep farming in an area which experiences sea eagle predation."