Sea eagles and a shared approach to wildlife management

Two weeks ago, NatureScot launched the 
Shared Approach to Wildlife Management which sets out how different interest groups can work together to help ensure healthy and valued populations of wildlife across Scotland. In the second of a series of blogs, we look at how this approach can help us navigate some of the opportunities and challenges arising from sea eagles.

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Adult white-tailed eagle in flight ©Lorne Gill

What is the shared approach?
The shared approach is a way of working together on wildlife management issues, even when opinions differ. At its heart are the principles of how we can work in partnership; respect each other’s views, build knowledge, share information, develop a common understanding, clearly communicate decisions, pursue best practice in animal welfare, and ultimately nurture the best outcomes for people and nature. In this blog on sea eagles, we show how we can apply these principles, particularly in relation to bringing together practitioner knowledge and peer-reviewed science, to inform action on the ground.

What does it mean for sea eagles?
Following a successful series of re-introductions beginning in 1975, white-tailed eagles, or sea eagles as they are often known, are now well established in Scotland.  The return of the sea eagle to our skies is a conservation success story.  They attract people from near and far, to places like the Isle of Mull, hoping to catch a glimpse of these impressive birds.

However, for others the return of the sea eagle has led to challenges. The National Sea Eagle Stakeholder Panel is a partnership of stakeholder representatives, including those experiencing losses from sea eagles, to try and find solutions to a complex wildlife management issue that is much bigger than the bird itself.

It is widely acknowledged that in some places, sea eagles predate live, healthy lambs and the impact on farmers and crofters livelihoods can be significant. The issue of livestock loss is complex and the impacts extend beyond the direct loss of individual animals. Predation on hill flocks, which rely on recruitment to the flock adapted to that environment and hefted to that place, can adversely affect the sustainability of the whole livestock system.

Apart from the loss of individual animals and the emotional distress of finding lambs which have been predated, impacts range from a direct loss of future breeding stock to the farmer, changes to the flock age structure and the loss of genetic characteristics from the flock.

The National Sea Eagle Stakeholder Panel have looked at a number of ways to reduce predation, including changes to historic management practices such as shifting the traditional location of lambing parks or retaining stock on in-bye areas for longer periods in the spring.

©Lorne Gill/SNH

The Sea Eagle Management Scheme (SEMS), administered by NatureScot on behalf of the stakeholders, is available for those suffering livestock losses.  It seeks to mitigate the impact that sea eagles can have. Work is ongoing with farmers and crofters to address the true costs of living and working alongside eagles which are causing damage. 

SEMS supports the presence of shepherds on the hill in the period during and after lambing – a time when the majority of losses are experienced.

©Lorne Gill/SNH

The Shared Approach recognises the need for wider knowledge and data. Shepherds record their observations on the hill and gather as much data on eagle behaviour as possible, often with the help of tracking and mapping software such as ViewRanger. Signs of lamb predation, the presence or absence of other prey species, and presence or absence of other predators are all recorded, to help guide management on those areas where damage is occurring. Gathering first-hand observations reflects the Shared Approach in the need to have open and shared information. This knowledge will help to increase our understanding at both local and national levels.

This year, SEMS is working with three sheep stock clubs on Skye and four farms in Argyll to trial this measure. The enhanced shepherding measure will not only help to develop our understanding of the specific issues on these areas but is also helping to support rural employment, with 14 shepherds employed in this seasonal work supported by NatureScot.

©Lorne Gill/SNH

Brexit, unstable market prices, uncertainty over future agricultural support schemes and a lack of new entrants are all current and future threats to the continuation of hill farming and crofting on the west coast. Sea eagle predation is often an added pressure which some businesses may struggle to cope with. Conversations with those experiencing damage reveal that it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Blackface sheep on the shore at Breakish, Isle of Skye. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

There are still a number of challenges ahead of us. Adopting the Shared Approach in a practical, hands-on manner will support those who are experiencing agricultural damage from species such as sea eagles. Sea eagles are a key part of Scotland’s nature and bring many benefits. These benefits are balanced with the needs of people working the land under the Shared Approach, taking into account diverging views.

For more information go to The Sea Eagle Management Scheme (SEMS) or contact if you want to discuss the scheme further.

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