REPORTS OF sea eagle attacks on lambs have been far and few between this lambing season, which some have suggested could be due to a good spring, more foot-fall on the hills and a growing abundance of prey for the species to eat.

However, there are still parts of Scotland which remain vulnerable to attacks, where other sources of prey have not benefitted from this past season.

“I’ve heard farmers say it has been the best lambing year ever and often when it’s a good year for lambing then it’s a better year for everything else,” said Rae McKenzie of Scottish Natural Heritage’s sea eagle management scheme. “If people are happy with lambing, then they might cope with a few losses of lambs which could otherwise finish them off during a bad year. This has also been a good year for birds and small mammals, which could mean there is more prey for sea eagles to choose from.”

Ms McKenzie stressed that despite lockdown putting an end to physical visits, SNH had moved to support farmers virtually and urged people to get in touch with any concerns.

“We have had to suspend all on-site visits, but call-off contractors are set up to offer advice and information to farmers and crofters over the phone, which we know isn’t perfect, but we want people to know our scheme is operating as normal as we can make it within current restrictions.”

Donald and Morag MacCorquodale from North Connell, Oban, have seen little action from their pair of sea eagles this season since their nest was moved earlier in the year. In 2018, they lost a lamb a day in the month of May alone.

“We have had one lamb killed since we turned the sheep out but other than that, it has been fairly quiet,” said Mr MacCorquodale. “Since their nest was taken down, the birds moved east round the plantation and although this measure helped us, it has not solved the problem as they are causing upset on a neighbouring farm.

“We have been seeing the birds in the air a lot more so we’re hoping this means they don’t have a chick. Normally one bird would stand guard in the nest in the early days and it would require a lot more feeding,” he explained.

“With the kids being home for lockdown, we have more activity on the hill, which might have helped deter the birds.”

By contrast, the chair of the North Raasay sheep stock club John Gillies told The SF that this spring hasn’t seen an abundance of new prey for sea eagles on the island, but that the closure of tourism to Raasay has meant less people are feeding the birds, allowing them to devote their full attention to hunting lambs. Taking measures into his own hands, Mr Gillies has started trialling new ways to deter the birds away from his stock.

“When lambing started at the end of April, we were finding a couple of lambs dead a day, with holes in their rib cages and talon marks in their flesh. It has eased off since then as we are out on the hill a lot and we won’t really know the true impact until we start gathering off the hills in early June.

“There is no prey for these birds to eat, so we have started this season taking fallen stock on to the hill where the birds are most active to see if they will take the carcasses over the live lambs. It isn’t a solution as we don’t have a lot of dead sheep to do this with, but the birds are taking them,” he said.

“When we had the boats coming in from Skye, the tour guides would chuck fish out for the sea eagles and they would swoop down and take them. These birds have to kill something to survive and the tourism season has disappeared so it leaves them with limited options.”