NEW ACTION to address sea eagle predation on lambs has arrived too late to curb hill clearances in the Isle of Skye, according to crofters and farmers.

During a meeting in Portree to announce a revamped sea eagle management scheme, Scottish Natural Heritage took the time to discuss the new measures and funding options now available to scheme members and appealed to frustrated farmers in the room to better communicate their issues with the organisation.

John Gillies, who runs a sheep farm over 7000 acres on the Isle of Raasay, voiced his concern that his breeding flock is under threat by sea eagles on the island: “We have never been in a situation where our lambing numbers are so low – our average over the hill was 50% and this has only happened since the sea eagles settled here in 2012.

“The damage has been done,” he continued, “and we are losing our hefted flocks and there’s no way we can go back! The Scottish Government have no respect for what we are doing, to them this is just a tourism hotspot, not somewhere people live and support local communities.”

Acknowledging that SNH is aware that there are serious problems with predation of flocks on the west coast, Andrew Kent – the person responsible for managing the sea eagle scheme – explained the changes it had made: “Previously, the old scheme capped at £1500 per annum for members and was measured according to acreage,” he said. “As well as the original scheme, we will now also be offering a one-year payment of up to £5000 for enhanced shepherding on the hills to help deter the birds. We will also pay 60% towards the costs of reducing sea eagles in certain circumstances up to a maximum of £10,000 over three years, as a contribution towards capital works.”

He explained that the latter funding would be available to farms experiencing significant impact from the birds and could be used towards measure such as purchasing scaring devices, the creation of lambing parks to move stock away from vulnerable sites with high predation or the development of lambing sheds and polytunnels.

Mr Kent stressed: “The sea eagles are here to stay, but we want to work alongside farmers and crofters to mitigate and reduce the impact they are having on your business. If we are not made aware of issues we can’t react. We want to get as many people engaged with the scheme as possible so we can begin to find solutions, but this requires communication at both ends,” he urged

SNH’s Rae Mckenzie also pointed out that at the lower end of the scale, smaller crofts who have previously not applied on an acreage basis would now be given a minimum of £500 towards supporting mitigation measures, which she hoped would encourage smaller units to sign up.

When queried about the success rates of measures trialled on monitor farms over the past few years, she replied: “In some places they have worked very well, such as diversion feeding on Mull, which has significantly reduced lamb losses. We have also found that increased human presence on the hills is acting as a deterrent. However, we know there are cases where our measures are not working and we are throwing everything we have at them and we are looking to try new methods such as felling larger areas surrounding nesting birds in the hope they will move on to new locations.”

Donnie Mackinnon expressed his frustration over what he claimed to be thousands of acres of hill clearances in Glendale, in the north east of Skye, due to predation: “It is alright for you sitting round your tables when we’re the ones out facing this in the fields. How would you like it if for six weeks, £50 came out of your pay packet every day? I keep my sheep in for three to four weeks longer now to avoid the birds, but it costs a lot of money to put them back to the hill and half the lambs don’t come back.”

Farmer John Macrae voiced concern over the impact the birds will have on the wider rural economy: “We want help, we need help. Do you want another clearance of the Highlands? The sheep are going, once the sheep go, what is going to keep the locals?”

John Mackinnon observed that health facilities, education and roads in the Highlands were all crying out for funding – but taxpayers' money was being devoted to a scheme which would not be needed if sea eagle numbers were 'dramatically' reduced.

"SNH want more information – but they are not dealing with the already damning information we have already given them," he added.