This week The Scottish farmer speaks to David Colthart who is chair of the Argyll and Lochaber Sea Eagle stakeholder group and one of the NFUS representatives on the National Sea Eagles Stakeholder Panel.

He farms over 3000 acres of marginal hill land carrying around 800 mostly Blackface ewes and 45 suckler cows. Over the years he has been significantly affected by sea eagle predation on his flock.

How long have Sea Eagles been a problem on the farm?

They first nested locally in 2006 and from there issues with predation started, more recently other pairs of birds are trying to establish locally.

How long have you been involved in sea eagle stakeholder group?

Well back in 2013 there was uproar on the increased and wider spread of impacts being experienced by White-tailed eagles on farms and crofts. It was felt at that point very little was being done to help us out on the west. NFU Scotland were under huge pressure to take action so a joint agreement was signed with Scottish Natural Heritage (now NatureScot) and two stakeholder groups were set up on Argyll and Skye to help explore a solution between sheep farmers and crofters who live with sea eagle predation. Part of the agreement was to agree a White-tailed Eagle action plan which started in 2017, a population expansion report on the birds was also commissioned and the stakeholders include NatureScot, NFUS, RSPB, SCF, FLS, SAC and the NSA. I am currently chair of the Argyll stakeholder group which is very active, and I also sit on the national Sea Eagle panel which sets the strategy for sea eagle management across the country.

What is happening now to help reduce the impact of Sea Eagles on farms and crofts?

Firstly, through the agreed Action plan, WTE monitor farms and crofts were set up and overseen by NatureScot to trial mitigation methods, record and monitor the birds’ activities and impacts on the ground. All have been working hard to find solutions to the problems. Previously, like many farmers and crofters, I was very sceptical of the efforts being made to find solutions. But since getting involved I can see progress being made albeit slow, but we are a lot further ahead with understanding the impact eagles are having on sheep farms and crofts. As a Monitor farmer, we have trialled a range of measures from scaring devices and rockets to diversionary feeding and enhanced shepherding, all of which to try and reduce the numbers of lambs lost on farm. The diversionary feeding trial during lambing worked on one Mull Farm but not here unfortunately.

Others have had assistance to put up polytunnels so they can lamb inside and others measures to help reduce the impacts.

How do you cope on your own farm?

We have had to make wholesale changes on the farm since the birds arrived, building new hill parks to lamb as opposed to lambing out of the hill. The eagles prefer taking lambs on open hill ground where the sheep are more isolated. But the theory is taking them into hill parks means that we can check the ewes more often which hopefully deters the eagles hunting there and reduces their kills.

Despite all our efforts we have not seen a dramatic reduction in lamb predation, but we are sure there are less being taken but the level is still too high. Last year from a hill flock of 700 ewes scanned at the end of March at 100% we had 135 unaccounted for deaths in the monitored areas, the vast majority I feel were lost through Sea Eagle predation – on the most impacted hill park, with 97 single bearing ewes, we were left with 31 lambs by marking time. We record all lamb losses either natural or from other predators. Foxes are actively controlled on the all the farms locally and any problems dealt with at an early stage. The worry is that as the WTE population locally increases that they will increasingly use the farms locally as a food source and that’s not sustainable!

As well as a WTE monitor farmer for the last five years we participate in the Sea Eagle management scheme where we get support towards management and mitigation measures. I get support for extra shepherding through enhanced measures and some of the extra feeding costs of the ewes when they are kept off the hill, but it doesn’t go near the extra costs endured. We do get more lambs from these extra measures, but the costs to achieve that have gone up exponentially.

The sea eagle scheme management payment is capped at £1500 for the largest farms and most are well below this. If approved, a range of enhanced measures can take this to maximum of £5000 combined.

As a monitor farm we have NatureScot observers regularly on the farm during lambing to record any WTE sightings and map any suspected predation sites, mostly that’s ‘pluckings’ which is a circle of plucked wool which is usually all that is left after the birds have been there. This adds to the information we record ourselves; the observers can go anywhere on the farm but generally focus where the birds have been most active.

They have also monitored the effectiveness of any mitigation trial with the aim that if something works it could be applied elsewhere.

How is this information useful?

All this data means that we can assess the success or not of different measures over the last five years, this has built a picture of the WTE’s activity on the farm – the problem is that some measures work in some place but not in others

Where we are now is looking at what other measures could be tried to stop the level of predation we have experienced. Unfortunately, the nest site is not on our land so that has currently limited our options. The most important thing farmers and crofters do where there is a WTE impacting on their flock is try and record as much information (including pictures) as possible and join the SEMS (Sea Eagle Management Scheme) as they can draw on support of NatureScot’s Call off contractors.

There is support for these apex predators amongst the General public but they do not fully understand the impact some of these birds are having on livelihoods so I hope that this can be better communicated in the future.

The national stakeholder panel accepts that live lambs are taken and in places that can have a significant impact on some businesses.

Are there successes to the measures?

Whilst we have not found a solution here yet, there are others where the mitigation work has helped. One of the other monitor farms lost an extra 30 lambs per year out of 600 reared after the eagles arrived, where before they would have only lost an average of five. After trialling other measures, the wood where they nest was scheduled to be cleared and under licence the nest removed before the birds laid. This disturbed the birds enough to move away from the farm. Being part of the monitoring programme helped to identify that these were problem birds. The following years, the number of lambs losses was back down too average five.

What is the future for sea eagles and sheep farming?

Basically, we need to accept that White-tailed Sea Eagles as a species are not going to be removed from Scotland. I know they are a reintroduced species which have returned to a different landscape than what was there when they were last here and they have had a significant impact on some businesses, leading to some going out of sheep.

It’s the problem birds, the ones that habitually target livestock, that we need to focus on and it’s the most difficult issue to resolve. But there has been a huge effort made by NatureScot and the stakeholder groups to find a solution.

If farmers and crofters have issues, they need to contact NatureScot about the sea eagle management scheme which has grown to over 150 farms and crofts. The data supplied helps assess the impacts on flocks up and down the west coast.

The law provides for lethal control to prevent serious agricultural damage where other methods have failed to stop the damage, but we are working hard to avoid that.

Not all eagles take lambs, but the ones that do can significantly damage a hefted flock’s ability to sustains itself. Identifying these problem birds and deploying measures to break the cycle of predation is a priority if we are to secure the future co-existence of sheep and sea eagles.