Ag Bill must tackle sea eagle issue

Many farmers on the west coast and western islands of Scotland are seriously considering giving up due to the severe losses incurred since the re-introduction of the white-tailed sea eagle. Gathering enough female lambs to maintain a regular flock is increasingly hard in many parts across the west of Scotland.

As a result, affected farmers and crofters have written to the Scottish Government seeking assurance that the problem will be tackled in the long-awaited agriculture reform bill.

Sandy Smith, president of the Scottish Blackface Sheep Breeders Association, Peter Myles, Chair of NSA Scotland, and Jenny Love, senior consultant and area manager, SAC Oban, have put their names to the letter which expresses serious concerns, not only regarding loss of income and future sustainability of some hill farms but also, of the mental health of people trying to make a living from sheep farming in sea eagle predatory areas.

The letter states: “It is quite obvious that farming in these areas is being ignored, and we feel that the budget provided through NatureScot in the shape of the ‘Sea Eagle Management Scheme (SEMS)’ is well wide of the mark of what is actually needed. Last year, the total money spent on compensatory measures amounted to under £280,000.”

READ MORE: NFUS urges more Sea Eagle support for the financially affected

It is well-understood and documented what the eagles bring to the economy in the way of tourism in these areas. However, as the letter points out if farmers and crofters are to be expected to provide the food source to maintain the growing population of sea eagles in the interests of the wider economy, then it is imperative that adequate compensatory measures are put in place.

The letter states: “It is important to note that the impact of sea eagles on our sheep farms and crofts goes far beyond lamb predation; the serious impacts are felt across the entire flock with less choice of female replacements and fewer cast ewes, resulting in older, less genetically fit ewes being kept on hills. The result is an unsustainable farm, which will lead to some farmers and crofters having to leave the industry, impacting the local rural economy and schools.”

Since they were first released in the Western Isles of Scotland in 1983, the breeding of these apex predators has been such a success that there are now over 175 breeding pairs, which are widening their territory in search of food sources and habitat.

The letter says, “Sea eagles now occupy an area ranging from Argyll to Sutherland on the mainland and throughout the Western Isles with many more venturing further east and south as time goes on. Thus inflicting more of our members and the Scottish sheep industry to a severe form of predation which is increasingly difficult to manage and control.”

The writers also claim that, while the eagles have a favourable impact on tourism, they have a negative impact on the delicate biodiversity balance on the hills. They say, “Under-grazing important, biodiverse hills, means that important habitat for national priority species, such as the Marsh Fritillary butterfly, key wader species, and black grouse, is no longer maintained in good condition. In addition, the fact that farms in affected areas are no longer able to produce as many lambs impacts the farm’s carbon footprint, adding an additional layer of uncertainty for the affected farmers and crofters with an eye on future conditionality, as well as impacting on Scotland’s Net Zero ambitions.

The letter has been sent to the First Minister, Humza Yousaf MSP, Minister of Energy and Environment Gillian Martin MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs Mairi Gougeon MSP, and Francesca Osowska, Chief Executive of NatureScot.