Sea eagles turn family's dream farm into nightmare

The return of white tail eagles have left farmers in Scotland feeling 'helpless' as the birds of prey attack their livestock

On Scotland’s west coast, farmers are facing a soaring problem that is pushing some to the brink.

It’s on traditional hill sheep farms that white tailed or sea eagles are causing havoc, even killing lambs.

The Love family has farmed in the West Highlands for 14 years.

It's a dream location for Robbie Love’s dream job, but it soon turned into a nightmare.

They’ve been suffering losses of £30,000 per year for a decade now.

Robbie and Jenny Love say sea eagles are costing them their livelihoods. Credit: ITV News

The evidence is in dead lambs found on the hillside surrounded by pluckings of wool.

The depleting lamb numbers limits the number of sheep they are able to sell on.

Robbie and his wife Jenny told us it’s no longer viable.

Jenny said: “Initially we were told and under the impression that eagles didn’t take live lambs, they were just scavengers.

"So, we weren’t expecting, even though we’d seen them, we weren’t expecting them to be a problem."

Sheep and lambs are being targeted by the sea eagles. Credit: ITV News

Robbie added: “You’re fighting a losing battle.” When asked how that made him feel he said: “That we’ve wasted 14 years of our life here.”

White-tailed - or sea - eagles were reintroduced to Scotland’s west coast in 1975 having become extinct in the UK in the early 1900s due to persecution.

There is now estimated to be over 140 breeding pairs in Scotland, helping to boost the globally endangered species.

The birds bring in £5 million to the country through tourism, with many travelling to the Isle of Mull just to view them.

Duncan Orr-Ewing from the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) said: “They are an important part of our avifauna. They are at the top end of the food chain; they are a top predator.

"Clearly they are a natural species to Scotland. It’s only in the UK it seems where this issue between sea eagles and livestock is reported.”

Sea eagles have been causing chaos in the West Highlands of Scotland Credit: ITV News

But more than 100 farms are reporting issues with these birds on Scotland’s west coast alone.

There is a Sea Eagle Management Scheme in place, which investigates activity on farms and offers advice on mitigation measures. The maximum financial support available is £5,000 a year.

The Love family have worked with the scheme, but mitigation measures haven’t been possible on a farm that spreads 3,000 acres.

They are the first known farm in Scotland to receive a Serious Agricultural Damage certificate from the scheme verifying their losses are due to Sea Eagle predation that is causing a significant financial impact.

The Scottish government public body Nature Scot runs the scheme.

Head of natural resource management Ross Lilley said: “Arguably we didn’t understand necessarily what impacts they would have until they became more established in the wild and we recognise that they have impacts."

Ross Lilley from Nature Scot. Credit: ITV News

We asked whether the current management scheme is fit for purpose.

Mr Lilley said: “It’s a complex issue, what we’re trying to do at Nature Scot, within the limitations that we have as an organisation, is provide as many tools as possible for the farmer to solve their issue and farm with eagles.

"But yes, we might have to go beyond that, because this is not just about sea eagles.

"Perhaps sea eagles are highlighting an issue that is something we’re trying to address Scotland wide at the moment - in terms of the future for our climate, future for nature as a whole in Scotland of which farmers and crofters are a critical part of the solution.”

We asked the Scottish government for an interview on this issue but there was no minister available and instead they sent a short statement.

A Scottish government spokesperson said: “We recognise the success of sea eagle reintroductions in Scotland but are aware that in some locations predation can have an impact on farm businesses.

"NatureScot have a Sea Eagle Management Scheme which supports farmers and crofters to manage and mitigate damage.”

This has left the farms facing the brunt of the impact and feeling helpless.

Jenny worries about the toll this is taking on her husband. She said: “There is nothing that I can do or say that is going to make it any better, it’s heartbreaking to see the impact on somebody’s mental health and nobody is really listening. That’s the really difficult thing.”

There’s no doubt that restoring natural habitats is imperative to tackling issues such as climate change, but in doing so, sheep farms like these, with their own environmental benefits, don’t want to become the collateral damage.

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