The Sea Eagle Management Scheme (SEMS) provides advice and support to farmers and crofters concerned about or experiencing livestock predation by white-tailed eagles, or sea eagles as they are often known.
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. Changes to the flock age structure and the loss of genetic characteristics from the flock are all impacts which can be experienced as a result of lamb loss.
NatureScot, through the SEMS, is working closely with farmers and crofters and a range of stakeholder partners to try and mitigate impacts where they occur. NatureScot runs the SEMS on behalf of the National Sea Eagle Stakeholder Panel (NSESP) which is comprised of representatives from the following stakeholder organisations
- National Farmers Union of Scotland
- National Sheep Association Scotland
- Scottish Crofting Federation
- RSPB Scotland
- Forestry and Land Scotland
- Scottish Government Rural Payments and Inspections Directorate
- Scotland's Rural College
- Scottish Raptor Study Group
NatureScot have administered a national SEMS since 2011, with local schemes operating prior to that in the West Highlands and Mull. There is a range of different support offered by the SEMS which includes advice from the NatureScot call off contractor team, loan of scaring equipment and financial support in the form of Management Agreements (MAs).
The purpose of this annual report is to provide stakeholders with a summary of the work delivered as part of the SEMS in 2021.
2. SEMS support delivered in 2021
2.1 Call off contractor Register of Interest (RoI) visits
NatureScot contract a team of call off contractors on an annual basis, who have expertise in sea eagle ecology and a detailed knowledge of farming and crofting systems. After initial discussions with NatureScot SEMS staff, the first point of contact for farmers and crofters after submitting a RoI in the SEMS is one of the call off contractor team.
Currently there are seven members of the call off contractor team, each covering a broad geographical area across the core areas where the SEMS is working; principally Argyll and Lochaber, Skye and Lochalsh, the Western Isles, Sutherland and Wester Ross. As the sea eagle population expands, call off contractors have also provided advice and support to farmers in other areas such as Perthshire and Strathspey.
Following the submission of a new RoI, the relevant call off contractor will be assigned to the farm, croft or sheep stock club registering their interest. A site visit, where possible, will be arranged with the point of contact, to provide advice and discuss in more detail any issues being experienced. The initial site visit also allows information on the holding’s management system to be discussed in more detail, with advice tailored to that specific situation. Call off contractors are also able to provide an overview of sea eagle territories in the surrounding area.
The nature of new RoIs varies with some farmers and crofters seeking advice only, some seeking loan of scaring equipment and some looking for advice on options and support available from SEMS MAs.
In 2021, the call off contractor team responded to 29 new register of interests in the SEMS, with site visits carried out where possible, or alternatively discussions held remotely in line with Covid-19 guidance. The farmers and crofters represented by these new RoIs manage land in excess of 25,000 hectares, with responsibility for over 10,750 breeding ewes and gimmers. Figure 2 below provides an overview of the location of these holdings:
In addition to new RoI visits, the call off contractor team and NatureScot SEMS staff completed a significant number of site visits during 2021, liaising with existing participants in the SEMS and delivering fieldwork; some of which is discussed later in this report.
2.2 Scaring equipment loans
NatureScot have an inventory of scaring equipment which is available to loan to farmers and crofters during lambing in order to try and mitigate sea eagle predation issues. Experience from trials has shown that this scaring equipment is most effective on holdings where lambing is taking place in-bye, in smaller lambing parks.
There are a number of holdings participating in the SEMS, particularly in the Western Isles, where scaring equipment is found to be an effective mitigation method against sea eagle predation of lambs, as well as deterring other avian predators. More than ten holdings repeatedly loan scaring equipment from NatureScot on an annual basis. In order to ensure that scaring equipment is available for trial to a wider group, NatureScot have encouraged those who have felt this to be an effective tool to apply to the SEMS for support for the purchase of these items. In 2021, eighteen holdings loaned scaring equipment from NatureScot.
2.3 SEMS MA support
In addition to providing advice and loans of scaring equipment, the SEMS also provides financial support to farmers and crofters experiencing sea eagle predation, or taking action to mitigate the risks of predation, through NatureScot MAs. Until 2020, the SEMS provided support solely in the form of area based MAs which were calculated on the area of a holding used for sheep management. A sliding scale applied to this calculation with larger holdings receiving the maximum annual payment of £1500 per annum.
Whilst SEMS MAs in this format acknowledged issues and provided financial support to try and address these, feedback from some farming and crofting representatives indicated that this delivery method was too narrow in scope. Some farmers and crofters felt that SEMS MAs didn’t acknowledge the costs that some businesses had incurred as a result of changing management practices to adapt to sea eagle presence, such as a shift from hill to indoor lambing for example.
In 2020, the way in which financial support from the SEMS was administered changed significantly following consultation with local and national sea eagle stakeholder groups. The standard level of support calculated on area as described above was still maintained, however enhanced and capital measures support was introduced to SEMS MAs. This support was targeted at those experiencing the most significant issues and those who had made significant management changes to mitigate issues, with resultant costs to their businesses.
In 2021 there were 137 holdings receiving MA support from the SEMS which included 34 new applicants seeking MA support. The majority of these holdings (108) were in receipt of the standard level of support, with 29 holdings receiving enhanced or capital measures support. More detail on enhanced and capital measures support delivered in 2021 and feedback on this follows.
2.3.1 Enhanced support
In 2021, there were 26 holdings which were offered, or in receipt of enhanced support across Argyll, Skye and Strathspey. The management supported through enhanced MAs varied, with a range of options available and NatureScot welcoming new approaches and ideas from farmers and crofters. MAs offered were tailored to the farmer or crofter’s individual management system. Support at this level is delivered annually, with MA term length varying depending on the timing of application submission. The maximum level of support offered at this level is £5000 per annum.
In 2021 there were nine holdings in Argyll and Skye delivering the enhanced shepherding measure under this level of support, with participating farmers and crofters managing a total area in excess of 18,000 hectares and responsible for in excess of 7,000 breeding ewes and gimmers. Enhanced shepherding is a collaborative measure, introduced in 2020, which is targeted at more extensive areas, where other management options might be limited.
The measure aims to better understand sea eagle predation and other factors influencing lamb loss on these areas, as well as the influence of additional human presence on sea eagle behaviour. More information on enhanced shepherding can be found here and a summary report of the 2021 work is in preparation.
Despite a challenging year for some who delivered enhanced shepherding, there was again some positive feedback on this measure which is evident in the comments below:
“Levels of losses were down on previous years…We feel the additional presence was very useful as well as the extra folk walking (post Covid) and both greatly helped to reduce the predation levels. We also employed the use of two bird scarers which may have helped…We would consider this measure in future years should funding be available.”
Whilst the positive feedback above was not reflective of the picture across all areas of Argyll and Skye where this work was delivered, even where there were continuing challenges in terms of lamb loss, there were wider benefits felt by this measure as evident in the feedback below:
“We are happy to be working with NatureScot again; being in the Sea Eagle Management Scheme gives extra funds that are put back into the local community employing folk close by to be out on the hill and better looking after the sheep. We are seeing this in the sales and endeavour to keep better figures and continually improve management.”
“We have been trying to involve more people from different backgrounds in the scheme…By discussing the impact of the WTE and the role of hill farming in crofting communities we hope to give a better picture of the rural landscape and the politics surrounding it. Folk better understand something if they are involved with it and can take part and have a say.”
In addition to enhanced shepherding, NatureScot also provided support in 2021 to a number of holdings where changes to historic management practice have been made in an attempt to mitigate sea eagle predation. This included support to 10 holdings in Argyll and Skye who have changed the location of their lambing from hill lambing to indoor lambing; which has resultant additional costs in terms of labour, feed and bedding.
NatureScot also provided support in 2021 to three holdings in Argyll and Skye who have changed their management from solely hill lambing, to lambing a proportion of their flock on in-bye fields usually set-aside for silage production. Lambing on these fields has knock on effects on silage yield and resultant bought in feed costs. NatureScot have worked closely with those farmers and crofters to provide financial support in order to address some of these costs through MA contributions specifically tailored to their individual management systems.
As well as supporting the above management under enhanced measures, the following measures were also supported in 2021 following applications for support submitted by farmers and crofters across Argyll, Skye and Strathspey:
- Away-wintering of ewes to enhance condition prior to lambing
- Away-lambing or away-summering of ewes and lambs
- Sponging of ewes to provide a tighter lambing window
- Earlier weaning and follow on housing of lambs
As part of the new approach to delivering SEMS MA support, farmers and crofters receiving this level of support were asked to provide their feedback on this new approach as part of annual end of season reporting.
Those receiving this level of support were asked for comments on whether the management supported had mitigated sea eagle impacts on their holdings, whether the level of support provided was reflective of overall costs associated with management changes and how this new approach compared with the previous area based support.
In addition feedback was also sought on any suggested changes or improvements. The responses received have been collated and some examples of the feedback provided is detailed below:
“By providing support we are able to manage the flock in a manner that keeps the ewes in good condition which allows them to produce and rear a good strong lamb. By keeping the wedders and twins away from areas of known predation it’s avoided contact with the sea eagle. The ewe lambs are initially put in a hill park for a few weeks before going to the hill ground and this allows them to be stronger going out and less likely to be preyed upon. We have not lost a lamb to sea eagle predation this year.”
“I feel the new scheme is targeting individual situations which is ideal. The fact that the scheme is continuing is excellent as it allows more information to be gathered and the potential to correct methods that are not working. The scheme is supporting businesses while they are adapting to the impact the sea eagles are having on their flocks.”
“When we started with the Scheme it was great to have a chance to put our ideas forward and try new management approaches. Since starting the scheme we believe we are finding better consistency in our stock record keeping - having to record and reflect on losses has proved to be very useful in this regard. Involvement in the scheme also led to us working with a PhD student who is investigating black loss – combined, this scheme and her study, will give me a better ability to manage my flock and mitigate losses.”
“The current level of support is extremely helpful and is a vital element in the mitigation of impacts associated with hosting WTEs on our Common Grazings… Direct contact with NatureScot staff has given the reassurance that the impact on individual Crofters is being more clearly understood and that the staff are trying to understand the true cost of WTE mitigation.”
As well as the positive feedback outlined above there was other feedback which reflected ongoing issues of lamb loss being experienced on some of the holdings receiving enhanced support in 2021. Feedback also reflected on increases in other costs associated with management changes which will be considered going forward:
“There are obvious benefits to lambing indoors however we still see significant losses up until weaning. The current level of support helps however we still suffer significant financial loss because of missing lambs and there are other impacts beyond financial losses”
“Any lamb losses result in not only a huge financial loss to any business, particularly with recent sales trends, but can also contribute to the inability to replace ageing homebred ewes and in some cases declining stock numbers. With Scotch lamb becoming increasingly popular on menus, shortages have been witnessed in the food chain, according to market reports, and more measures need be adopted to protect livestock from further predation, particularly with the recent news of the conservation success of the sea eagle.”
“The cost of extra feeding required to retain all lambs in-bye until 4 weeks old has not been taken into account. This needs to be looked at as retaining all lambs means there is not sufficient grass available at this time of year and supplementary feeding is therefore required.”
2.3.2 Capital support
As part of the new approach to delivering SEMS MAs, capital support is available to farmers and crofters wishing to explore infrastructure projects such as the creation of new hill parks, lambing polytunnels and sheds, or carrying out works such as improvements of fields through liming. Depending on MA term, NatureScot offer support in the form of percentage contributions to actual costs of projects. In 2021, five holdings in Argyll and Skye were offered capital measures support, with works also completed on two holdings in Argyll and Lochaber which were offered this level of support in 2020.
Due to the rising costs of materials, timescales for delivery of work and issues sourcing contractors, two projects had to be cancelled with these individuals receiving alternative MA support from the SEMS.
As with enhanced support, those receiving capital measures support from the SEMS were asked for their feedback on whether the projects delivered had helped to mitigate issues, whether the level of support provided was reasonable as well as any suggested changes or areas for consideration going forward. Some of the collated feedback is detailed below:
“In 2021, we decided to lamb the gimmers from one hill on the in-bye (in the polytunnel) along with any twin-bearing ewes from the same hill because we suspected that losses in twins may be high as well as it is more difficult for the mother to defend two lambs against predators. We weaned 89% across that hill in 2021 which unfortunately still includes black loss figures but it is a much better result than we have had. Given that we have very few issues at lambing and abortion does not appear to be an issue on that hill, the blackloss can be assumed to be predominantly predation-related.”
“As discussed the major factor in last year’s lambing was the weather and lack of grass. However it is clear that sea eagle management scheme capital works helped us to keep more ewes in bye for longer thus allowing us to monitor and deter predation of young lambs. Numerous sightings of sea eagles were made during lambing time but we are confident that the increased human presence afforded by keeping the ewes in bye minimised any predation by sea eagles.”
“The Sea Eagle Scheme has been extremely helpful in reducing the costs associated with mitigating the impact of Sea Eagle predation. Answering the question strictly accurately, obviously the capital works were supported at 60% of projected capital cost. Inevitably we have then made additional improvements at additional cost to ourselves. So while it cannot be said that the level of support is reflective of the overall cost of mitigating sea eagle impacts it has been extremely helpful.”
3. Associated support from the SEMS in 2021
3.1 NatureScot SEMS observer team
In 2021, the NatureScot SEMS observer team delivered additional observations on two monitor farm areas in Argyll, working collaboratively with farmers there who were delivering the enhanced shepherding measure. Eleven observers made up this team in 2021, with call off contractors in Argyll providing support and training to newly contracted team members and introductions to the three farms and the farmers at each site.
Observations commenced in April and finished in August, with observers delivering a combination of vantage point work and walking routes on the hill. Observers collected data on sea eagle activity as well as the activity of other lamb predator species, presence of other sea eagle prey species and observations of carcasses and potential predation signs. Observations took place at varying times from early morning through to evening, with over 800 hours delivered across the three farms.
Whilst also supporting farmers and allowing co-ordination of enhanced shepherding work on two farms, these observations also helped to identify one new prospecting pair of sea eagles, whose behaviour was previously not well understood. The data collected from this work will be collated and presented in the enhanced shepherding report which is in preparation.
3.2 Liaison and fieldwork
In addition to completing site visits associated with new RoIs, the call off contractor team and NatureScot SEMS staff liaised with existing SEMS participants throughout 2021, with a number of site visits completed as well as provision of advice and discussion of queries by email and telephone. This work also included liaison with local stakeholder groups by video conference and responding to media enquires related to the SEMS.
In addition to fieldwork associated with the mainland Argyll monitor farms, diversionary feeding was again delivered at a monitor farm site in Mull in 2021 following suspension in 2020 due to Covid-19. This work was delivered collaboratively, with call off contractor work here supported by the farmer and Jan Dunlop of the Mull and Iona Ranger Service.
The diversionary feeding work at this site follows a strict methodology with only small quantities of fish provided once per day during the key lambing period. In 2021, the farmer at this site recorded one of the best lambing figure returns in recent years, with the sea eagle pair associated with this site successfully fledging two chicks.
A report on this monitor farm project, which has been running for a number of years, will be available in due course and guidance for rolling this option out more widely to interested farmers and crofters will be prepared. Two farms in mainland Argyll have shown interest in delivering diversionary feeding and NatureScot have provided some initial support and advice to both.
In addition to direct observations delivered on monitor farm areas by observers and call off contractors, trail cameras were deployed on two farms in Argyll in 2021 to help inform understanding of age class of sea eagles using these areas, as well as the presence of other predator and prey species and potential interactions with lambs.
At both of the sites where trail cameras were deployed, the findings were shared with the farmers there who both found this a useful tool and this work will be repeated in 2022 to support direct observations being delivered on both holdings.
In order to better understand sea eagle prey selection and availability in some areas reporting ongoing predation of lambs, call off contractors visited 14 sea eagle nests in the autumn of 2021 following agreement with relevant landowners. In locations where sea eagle nests were located on farmer’s and crofter’s holdings, those individuals were asked to attend the nest clearance if available, which provided an opportunity to discuss prey remains before these were then sent for analysis. Nest visits were completed in Skye, Raasay, Lochalsh, mainland Argyll and Sutherland.
Prey remains were sent to Justin Grant for analysis, with the results of this analysis including Justin’s report, shared with the relevant land managers for each site. This fieldwork has provided a useful and interesting snapshot of prey selection by sea eagles at each of these territories and it is hoped that this work can be repeated in 2022 to build on last year’s data.
4. Concluding remarks and acknowledgements
The return of sea eagles to our skies is a conservation success story. However in some places sea eagle predation continues to be a serious issue for farmers and crofters. Sea eagle predation of livestock is a complex wildlife management issue and in writing this annual report, the views and feedback of some farmers and crofters have been reflected.
NatureScot recognises the concern and seriousness of this issue to some farmers and crofters across parts of Scotland and continues to work closely with stakeholders at a local and national level to find solutions. The work of the SEMS and the NSESP are examples of the Shared Approach to Wildlife Management being applied in practice.
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.
The content of this Annual Report demonstrates the wide variety of desk and field work delivered by the SEMS in 2021. This work has been delivered in collaboration with farmers and crofters across a number of areas of Scotland. This report acknowledges the input and data provided by those individuals and representatives from farming and crofting organisations, principally NFUS, SCF and NSA Scotland.
The report also acknowledges the ongoing work of stakeholder representatives from local and national sea eagle stakeholder groups on this complex issue.
Much of the work delivered in 2021 would not have been possible without the expertise of the call off contractor and observer teams and NatureScot acknowledges their continued work in helping to deliver the SEMS.
Thanks to NatureScot colleagues working on various aspects of the SEMS, from development and delivery of MA support to administration, advice and liaison elements of the SEMS.
The following individuals and organisations have also provided, data, advice and support in the delivery of the SEMS in 2021 and NatureScot acknowledges their contributions to this work:
Jan Dunlop and Mull and Iona Ranger Service, John Taylor and Forestry and Land Scotland, Dave Sexton and RSPB Scotland, Argyll Raptor Study Group, SGRPID, SRUC and SAC Consulting.