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Scotland’s White-tailed (Sea) Eagles: Friend or Foe?

​It started with an innocent post on social media… A friend had uploaded a photograph of sheep following a recent weekend break to the Isle of Mull and wanted to know why they were sleeping on the beach at night? Amongst the answers to the question were suggestions of midge avoidance and warm sand for a comfortable nights sleep; however, one comment immediately got my attention:

‘… or may be they are less obvious to sea eagles … huge issue on Mull and up the north... SNH [Scottish Natural Heritage] will tell you it’s not true but I have seen it’.

Now that was a comment worthy of some investigation, I thought to myself!!

White-tailed (sea) eagles became extinct in the UK after the last surviving bird was shot dead in Shetland in 1916. Unfortunately, natural recolonisation (post-1916) was considered unlikely due to parallel declines in the white-tailed eagle population throughout mainland Europe. Following two earlier reintroduction attempts in Fair Isle and at Loch Eitive in 1959, a formal re-introduction programme was initiated in the 1970s. As part of a first wave of re-introductions between 1975 and 1985, 82 young eagles (eaglets) were introduced from Norway to the Isle of Rum, in the west coast of Scotland. After 30 years and two additional re-introductions (one in the west coast and one in the east coast), the Scottish white-tailed eagle population reached 100 pairs as of 2016.

Back to the subject at hand... I have to admit that I was quite 'taken-a-back' by the comment; not because the individual in question was implying eagles could 'spirit away' a full grown sheep, no, I first heard that rumour quite a few years ago. Rather, it was the implication that we were not being told the truth about the extent of the potential issue...

The individual who made the comment cited a farming publication in support of their statement. The article, which was published in the ‘Scottish Farmer’ raises concerns that Scotland’s growing sea eagle population is having a serious impact on sheep farming, and suggests that measures need to be taken to control the growing (eagle) population. Having been involved in more than one project where white-tailed eagles were an issue for renewable development, naturally I was very interested to learn more about this potential issue. So it was with an open mind that I took to Google in search of information to support the claim. Initially I thought I was going to be met with graphic pictures, posts, blogs, articles and witness accounts, especially given the conviction of the statements in the above publication. However, I was left disappointed, because aside from a spurt of mainstream media attention, in response to a picture of a white-tailed eagle carrying a lamb in May this year, I couldn't readily find more information to support the extent of the reported issue. In fact, most of the informaiton I found was anecdotal and was being exchanged with some fervour on discussion forums.

Rumours of sea eagles predating lambs have been around almost as long as the re-introduction programme itself. Yet, there is no reason to suggest decision-makers have avoided addressing the issue. In fact, SHN commissioned two separate independent studies (one focussed in the Isle of Mull; the other in Wester Ross) to investigate the issue of lamb predation in greater depth. Interestingly, despite the abundance of rumours, the studies showed that eagles were only taking small numbers of live lambs, and of those taken, the majority of them were scavenged as carrion. Notwithstanding, in response to their work with the farming community, SNH launched the Sea Eagle Management Scheme in 2015 for farmers and crofters at risk of loosing their lambs. The scheme provides funding measures to improve livestock condition and undertake preventative action to reduce the likelihood of predation events. The fund is managed by regional stakeholder groups, which are represented on a national scheme panel by representatives from SNH, National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS), RSPB Scotland, Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS), Scottish Government Rural Payments and Inspections Directorate (SGRPID) and Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF).

So what has my blog investigation yielded? Well, it would appear much of the evidence, presented in favour of white-tailed eagles predating large numbers of livestock is anecdotal. Clearly it’s important the growing concerns from the farming community are taken on board and investigated; however, an absence of credible data serves to underline the importance of robust, quantitative data collection and analysis, if requests to manage the growing population of sea eagles are to be considered.

Image Credit: Pixaby

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