SCOTTISH NATURAL Heritage has publicly conceded that white-tailed eagles prey on healthy lambs – ending years of official denial over the species' impact on Highlands and Islands sheep farms.

In its newly released action plan, SNH admitted: “More recent work which has looked at the remains left in nests alongside post mortems carried out as part of SNH’s Sea Eagle Scheme and the use of nest cameras confirm that in some cases, white-tailed eagle are bringing freshly dead lamb carcasses to the nest and, in a number of cases, these lambs are likely to have been healthy when they were caught. Therefore, it is accepted that WTE predation is a factor in some lamb losses."

The SNH findings also revealed that in areas where there was a lack of alternative food, the predation period could extend beyond lambing season and present a threat to lambs and adult sheep throughout the year, with long-term negative effects on the farming and crofting community.

“On extensive hill sheep flocks, impacts can extend beyond simply the economic loss of a viable lamb destined for sale – fewer ewe lambs result in a smaller pool of lambs from which replacements can be drawn for the hill flock. This then provides less choice over the quality of the replacements available with consequences for the flock’s breeding performance," noted SNH, which also acknowledged that predation was forcing farmers to bring in replacement stock which might lack resistance to local diseases and parasites, and not be so easily hefted to the hill.

“All these factors combined can contribute to a decline in the viability of a hill farm unit unless preventative measures are deployed,” concluded the report.

SNH has already been working with monitor farms located on Mull, Argyll and in the Skye and Lochalsh area to trial a range of measures to deter sea eagles from attacking flocks. Management techniques being tested include nest site manipulation, via the felling of nest trees, scaring on open ground, diversionary feeding, and changes to stock management, including improvement of ground to retain stock on lower ground for longer post lambing.

SNH stressed that it was also offering support to the industry via ‘call-off contractors’ who investigate the birds' activity near a farm and advise on measures to mitigate against their impact, with up to £1500 per year available to affected land managers to carry out agreed livestock management.

NFU Scotland welcomed SNH's recognition that the species preys on healthy lambs: “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,” said president Andrew McCornick. “For a long time, the impression has been given that only weak or dead lambs are subject to WTE predation. Recognition that predation includes healthy sheep and lambs vindicates what many farmers and crofters affected by WTEs have been saying for some considerable time.

“With one WTE monitor farm able to clearly demonstrate the loss of an extra 181 lambs in the period 2012-2018, it is clear to me that WTE predation could have a serious impact on the sustainability of hefted hill flocks on some farms and crofts.”

Mr McCornick continued: “It is important to note that the successful reintroduction of WTEs has brought tourism benefits to some, but the reality is that those benefits tend not to go to the farmers and crofters of the west coast who actually bear the costs and endure the impact that these birds are having on livelihoods that are already vulnerable.

“With numbers expected to grow exponentially over the coming decades, potentially into the thousands when combining adult and juvenile birds, the impact on sheep producers will expand far wider than the current hotspots as they follow available food sources east and south. All modelling on populations comes with significant caveats but one has suggested that, depending on conditions, there could be as many as 900 breeding pairs by 2040.

“That means the valuable work currently being conducted by SNH staff, their contractors and farmers and crofters looking for successful mitigation measures must continue as we endeavour jointly to find solutions to the predation problem,” he said.