SEA EAGLE predation on sheep flocks on the West Coast of Scotland has led a number of badly-affected farmers and crofters to question the future viability of sheep farming in the region.

Sea eagles were reintroduced into Scotland in the mid-1970s as part of an effort to increase biodiversity and boost tourism efforts. They first settled successfully on the Isle of Mull in the 1980s and over the past 40 years have gradually grown in number and have taken up roost in the west coast where they prefer the climate and forestry cover.

There were 130 breeding pairs recorded in 2017, which doesn’t account for juveniles, which reach sexual maturity at five or six years.

A lack of abundant prey for them to hunt has meant that some of the birds have taken to killing lambs which has caused carnage on certain parts of the Highland coast. After years of upset, Scottish Natural Heritage, together with organisations such as RSPB, the Scottish Crofting Federation and NFUS, set up a sea eagle management scheme with a view to discuss measures to support farmers.

The scheme offers a financial payment of up to £1500 to members measured on an acreage basis, to help strengthen parts of their farming operation to mitigate against the damage sea eagles are inflicting.

This scheme has recently announced extra funding for members which can be used to enhance shepherding on the hill, build lambing sheds away from the birds and to buy scaring devices, plus other measures. However, affected farmers and crofters still ultimately feel that the birds should be relocated from areas where trialled measures have proved unsuccessful.

During the past three years, there has been a number of farms involved with a monitor farm project, where SNH has been trialling new measures to mitigate damage against the birds but with mixed results. The SF travelled up the West Coast to meet with some of those who have been hit hard by sea eagle predation and to gauge what this might mean for the future of sheep farming in the region.

Braebost farm, Skye

Billy and Helen Macrae, of Braebost, Edinbane, in the North of Skye, made the decision three years ago to make some major changes to their farming operation in the hope of reducing the number of losses they were incurring from sea eagle predation.

They first experienced problems with nesting birds in 2015 and have since joined the sea eagle monitor farm scheme to trial mitigation measures on their land. They believe it could be a case of ‘too little too late’ to stop the destruction caused by the birds but are still keen to work towards a solution before they see more farmers and crofters close up shop on the island.

The Macraes’ flock of 480 Blackface ewes are split between their two farms at Braebost and Lynndale, which are surrounded by six known breeding pairs of sea eagles within a five-mile radius. Billy explained what influenced their decision to move away from Cheviot sheep to running Blackface.

“We were finding that our Cheviots were too easy a target for the sea eagle, we would bring them in to feed at the trough and effectively were creating a breakfast bar for the eagles. We sustained losses of more than 80 lambs in 2018 and by the end of that year had completely moved away from Cheviots.

“The hope with the Blackies is that they are more scattered on the hill and are less of a concentrated target. We dose and mineralise them but avoid gathering them in for a feed to attract as little attention as possible from the eagles.

“We have been finding it a struggle to keep up our ewe lamb numbers for breeding stock replacements and quality is becoming a major concern as there are fewer to choose from. Last year, we bought in ewes to keep numbers up, but it is hard to get traditional hardy Blackies to fit with our tough landscape.”

Billy said it was a battle to get SNH to accept that sea eagles were preying on live, healthy lambs and that it wasn’t until results came back from post-mortems that they had the evidence to prove it wasn’t weak vulnerable lambs being taken as had been their claims for years.

“The problem is that they have introduced birds at the top of the food chain without any natural predators, so there is nothing to stop their numbers increasing and the threat to our flocks with it.”

Some 130 breeding pairs were accounted for in Scotland, in 2017, not including juveniles and research has predicted a growth of up to 900 pairs by 2040.

“We are already seeing clearances on the island in places such as Glendale and Orbost,” Billy continued. “The sheep are now gone from these areas and there are thousands of acres of grassland which you’ll never get sheep back on and with it the tradition of hefting is being lost.

“We have always had golden eagles here, but they didn’t cause too much of an upset. The problem is that there isn’t enough natural prey here for the sea eagles to hunt, so they are turning to our sheep, which are easy targets on the open hill landscape.”

Billy and Helen joined the monitor scheme to look at measures to protect their flocks from predation in 2016 and explained how effective some measures had been.

“The scary men have been hopeless when you’re trying to cover 800 ha and the birds are so domesticated now that they don’t get scared easily. We would welcome SNH’s plans to enhance shepherding on the hill to monitor the birds and serve as a distraction. However, there simply isn’t the available labour to get more men on the ground,” he pointed out.

“We don’t want to start lambing our ewes in sheds as they are hefted to the hills and that is where they should be. It is important to stress that this isn’t just an issue which impacts us for six weeks a year during lambing, but is year-round.

“We have had ewes that have been attacked and in one incident we found a ewe on her back with the meat ripped clean off her thigh bone. Neighbouring farms are also bringing in sheep for clipping and finding talon mark scars on their backs.”

Billy stressed that if bird numbers can’t be controlled in the coming years, then it’s not just farmers who might suffer the consequences. “Sheep numbers are going to continue to drop but wildlife such as sea birds and waders are going to keep decreasing too – soon all we will be left with are barren hillsides,” he warned.

“We don’t want to see abandoned hillside left to heather and scrubland which will require burning every few years – it won’t help our carbon footprint. A lot of these hills aren’t suitable for modern forestry as peat is too deep and can’t be disturbed.

“Everyone is going on about global warming and having to act now to save the planet. We need to act now to save our West Coast sheep industry and wildlife.”

North Raasay stock club, Isle of Raasay

Farming on the Isle of Raasay off the east coast of Skye is a challenging feat for sheep farmer, John Gillies, who has felt the severity of sea eagle attacks on his flock of 1400 Blackface ewes over the past eight years.

John is chair of the North Raasay Sheep Stock Club, a co-operative which runs sheep over 7000 acres on the island. Sea eagles first settled on Raasay in 2012 and that same year John saw his lambing percentage on the top of his hills drop from 75% to 45%.

A lack of available prey has meant that sheep are on the menu for resident eagles and John explained why he believes there is a good reason these birds were pushed to extinction in the first place.

“These birds will kill off everything first before they attack one another. They have attacked geese and swans amongst other wildlife and there is a good reason people got rid of them in the first place, but protected other birds of prey.

“The impact these huge birds can have is devastating and it’s not just the animals that they attack but the stress they cause to the people looking after them. It’s pretty horrific when you come across the mess these eagles leave behind and the trauma this can have on the surrounding flock.”

John said he used to sell 600 lambs each year but since the sea eagles turned up he has only been selling around 300. “There are fewer good quality lambs to choose from because of the losses we’re incurring, so we can’t afford to sell as many as we need to ensure we have replacements.

“We keep being told to lamb in-bye, or to invest in polytunnels but it’s a different ball game up here on the hills of Raasay than in it might be on a big flat farm on more fertile parts of Scotland. Even with the offer of money to invest in new sheds etc, we aren’t going to change what we are doing to accommodate someone else’s idea, when these birds should never have been reintroduced.

“These birds are not endangered, they have settled in 41 countries, so there isn’t this need for protection. I am more concerned by the lack of hares and the single remaining golden eagle we have on the island which is going to die out.”

Commenting on measures being trialled to curb the impact of the birds, such as diversion feeding and enhanced shepherding, he said: “Diversion feeding interferes with natural selection, so the birds will just stay strong and continue breeding.

“As for enhanced shepherding, where is this extra labour going to come from and how are they going to cover 100 acres of hill, let alone 7000. This isn’t suited to extensive hill systems and it’s hard enough to encourage new blood into the industry as it is, the incentives aren’t there financially, and the burden of the eagles will be an added deterrent in these parts of Scotland.”

John highlighted that tick-borne diseases in some parts of Scotland are going to get worse and hill clearances could escalate the problem: “If you want to keep tick problems under control then the only way is to keep sheep on the hill, not bring them in to in-bye ground.

“This has already been a successful measure in grouse moors but could become a growing problem in the west Highland coast. On Uist, I have been told that there are no sheep left on the hill and it is currently the worst place in Scotland for Lyme disease,” he warned.

Achnaba farm, Oban

Achnaba farm has been in the Buchanan family for 135 years but testing times of late with a breeding pair of sea eagles has pushed Archie, Donald and Morag to the brink of whether or not to continue farming on their beloved hill farm in North Connel, Oban.

Covering over 1400 acres of improved hill land on the west coast, Achnaba has produced many strong, high quality hill lambs over the years, proving a regular hit at the Dalmally sale.

However, since a nesting pair of sea eagles settled in the surrounding forest in 2011, their flock of 520 Blackface sheep has been subjected to regular torment by these birds of prey.

Sitting down with the SF to discuss their experience with the sea eagles, Morag explained the stress which they have placed on their family.

“Like many farmers we have faced our fair share of hurdles over the years, but you get round them. With these birds, your hands are tied! You have no control whatsoever and we have to stand back and watch them destroy our livelihood.

“The first year we experienced real bother with the eagles was in 2012. They would watch as the ewes were lambing and swoop in and take the fresh lamb before it had had a chance to bond with its mother. It was very distressing, but we were helpless as to put a stop to it. Now they have become more domesticated and will attack throughout the year, taking big strong lambs and at times, ewes,” she stressed.

In 2018, the Buchanan's were losing a lamb a day during lambing and their natural mortality went from less than 1% to between 6 & 7%.

“Some of our breeding goes back for multiple generations and we have always had a good selection of ewe lambs to sell on to regular byers, but now with increased lamb losses this is proving more difficult,” commented Donald.

“We take our sheep in-bye to lamb in the second week of April and put them back to the hill in May. We have three parks we divide our ewes in, and we know exactly how many are in each slot, so we keep a close eye and record our numbers.

“Not a lamb goes back to the hill that doesn’t look strong and in good condition, we are not putting out lambs which are sick and weak.”

Donald pointed out the announcement SNH made in May 2019, where after years of pressure they finally admitted that sea eagles were taking strong, healthy lambs which farmers and crofters had been pushing for many years.

“We have a higher stock density for the number of acres we cover and most of it is improved. We look for a lot of our sheep to have twins as the ground is good enough but since we have had the sea eagle attacks, conception rates have dropped as some of the ewes have been traumatised. When these birds take a lamb it’s hard enough but afterwards their mothers are grazing good green grass and incidences of mastitis kick in which can hit us as a double whammy if they need to be cast.”

Since 2014 the farm has been involved with the sea eagle management scheme and since 2016 have been one of the monitor farms trialling new measures of deterrence on their farm to combat the level of predation they are facing. Donald explained some of the measures they have used and the success they have had.

“We have trialled different scaring techniques such as scary inflatable men but they pop up seven times and lie flat for 20 minutes but the birds just get used to them. SNH have tried diversion feeding but it didn't work with this pair of birds, they are particularly bad on sheep and there is little else for them to eat. There are the odd seabirds but no rabbits and lambs are the easiest thing for them to kill over the summer months to support their chicks.”

SNH also tried sawing down their nests but the birds simply moved 10m away and within days it was rebuilt. There has been some success with having more manpower on the ground roaming the hill farm, however Donald pointed out that this had shifted the problem over to their neighbours who have had a terrible year of lamb losses - proving that this is not a solution.

“We have bent over backwards here to find a solution and we have been happy to let SNH trial any measures on our farm and to have completely unrestricted access to the land. However, we have come to a crossroads and nothing news is coming up and we are still suffering from the problem.

“There should be an option available to farmers that where there is a genuine issue and extensive agricultural damage incurred, SNH should be allowed to relocate these birds away from livestock. When these birds breed then they are passing their feeding habits on to their offspring. We are told there are sea eagles which are thriving in areas with no lambs so we’re not suggesting to move all birds just to remove the problem ones,” he urged.

Donald went on to describe the emotional toil the last few years has had on his family and him and worries what the future holds for the next generation.

“When you’re out shepherding on the hills and you come across plucked wool and blood splattered on the grass, or you find a freshly killed lamb it is a horrific sight. It causes huge distress on ewe and shepherds. There are so few of us left in this part of the west coast and soon there will be no sheep. Why is it that the welfare of these birds must be protected? What about the welfare of the lambs they are predating? There has to be a balance struck!

“We don’t know what the position will be like in the future, there could be several nests and we might hardly have a ewe left. We need to find a workable solution now or else we are going to watch our livelihood drift away,” he concluded.