Am Bratach No. 215
Sea eagles took half my lambs Rhiconich crofter
Although pleased with the price he received for his lambs in August, crofter David Forbes says he has lost between forty and fifty per cent of this year's lamb crop to sea eagles, birds protected in law.
Over the last three years Mr Forbes, of Rhivichie by Rhiconich, noticed that he was missing lambs but couldn't put his finger on why it was, eventually discounting the possibility of a rogue fox or a wildcat.
"They are losses that I can't explain," he explains, readily agreeing that you always get ups and downs in farming.
"So, I wasn't sure what was going on, but I also noticed there was one sea eagle flying about our area for the last three years." And that's been confirmed by other people in the locality he says, reeling off a list of names that includes his landlord and the gamekeeper of an estate in the neighbouring parish.
"I didn't think much of it because we never had sea eagles here before and I didn't know anything about them. You read about the problems elsewhere but you don't think much of it because you've never experienced these problems."
Mr Forbes had no difficulty in identifying the bird, a task made fairly simple by the 8-foot wing span. "It's far bigger than a golden eagle and it's got quite distinctive wings."
And then, this year, he was short of an awful lot of lambs, which naturally made him suspicious of the sea eagle, or white-tailed eagle, a bird that was reintroduced by Scottish Natural Heritage, the RSPB and the Forestry Commission into Rum from 1975 to 1983 and into Wester Ross from 1993 to 1998. Beginning in 2007, sea eagles were also released in Fife. The bird had became extinct in Britain early in the nineteenth century.
When Mr Forbes and his son Michael were gathering for one of the August lamb sales this year Michael came across, not one, but two sea eagles, quite near the coast. "He knew what he was looking at and he said they were higher than his waist and had a big girth. You could hear the scraping talons on the rock, then the whoosh of their wings when they took off. They were definitely sea eagles - a pair - not necessarily a male and a female -but a pair of sea eagles.
"Well, we gathered the sheep and on the way back I found one lamb's leg on its own in the middle of nowhere - which is very strange to find, indicative of a bird dropping something.
"A fox tends not to leave a leg lying about. It will take it to a den or something. So that's the only sign I saw of any predation. But then there are a lot of lambs missing and as well as that my neighbour in Ardmore put his lambs out on the hill after they were marked and he lost eight lambs out of twenty-two very, very quickly."
Reports of lamb deaths due to sea eagles are nothing new in the Highlands. Last Backend, farmers called for more consultation before extinct species were introduced, after the chairman of the Gairloch branch of Scottish Crofting Foundation claimed that sea eagles had killed hundreds of lambs in his district.
This seems to have prompted Scottish Natural Heritage and their partners to reopen the Sea Eagle Management Scheme to Skye, Lochalsh, Lochaber and Wester Ross in February, ahead of the lambing season. The scheme is described by SNH as being "available to farmers and crofters who manage land close to sea eagle nests, and offers payments for undertaking specific activities, aimed at benefiting the eagles and assisting with stock rearing."
Although not available in North West Sutherland at present, both the RSPB and SNH told us that if the demand were there, it could well be extended to cover this area.
Then, during the 2009 lambing season, SNH appointed The Food and Environment Research Agency to carry out an investigation into lamb health and movement in Gairloch, from birth to speaning. Radio tracking technology and fieldworker observation was used to follow the fortunes of sixty lambs on two holdings while an additional holding was used to make visual observations on hill ground. Although the project has long since been completed, the results are not expected before mid-October we were told.
The RSPB has confirmed to us that the sea eagle has been sighted in the Rhiconich area where Mr Forbes has his flock, which will no doubt please the organisation since its promotional literature states that "sea eagles play a pivotal role in maintaining the ecosystem." "Well, it depends what ecosystem you want," comments David Forbes. "Because if you want these birds which have been here - there was a curlew and the red-throated divers in the habitat which they now frequent - it's not a good idea to put a major predator above them. It's going to disturb them, if not kill them." And he adds, that for any benefit they may bring say with increased tourism someone is going to have to foot the bill. He hopes it won't be crofters like him.