NFUS publishes its proposed sea eagle action plan

Back in January this year we blogged about how the National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS) was calling on the government to introduce [unspecified] ‘control measures’ against white-tailed eagles (see here).

Several meetings later, the NFUS has now published its proposed ‘Sea Eagle Action Plan’. Some may consider this an ill-timed report given the public outrage at the recent mass poisoning of red kites and buzzards on farmland in Ross-shire, swiftly followed by the news that the first white-tailed eagle to fledge in East Scotland for ~200 years has mysteriously vanished in a well-known persecution hot-spot in Aberdeenshire. Still, it’s not the first time farmers have ignored public opinion – in January they dismissed the results of a poll (that they had organised) which showed that 92% of respondents were against control measures for sea eagles (see here), and then there was the badger cull…

Their latest proposed action plan has been published on the NFUS website. The first noticeable flaw is the photograph they’ve used to announce the publication: it most definitely isn’t a sea eagle! An inability to identify the species you’re accusing of killing thousands of lambs isn’t a good start.

NFUS Sea Eagle Action Plan

The action plan itself suggests several recommendations, and these are apparently based on the results of another NFUS survey recently completed by a small selection (103) of NFUS members. The survey results are fascinating.

66% of them claimed their farm business had been negatively affected by sea eagles although the report doesn’t provide any quantitative evidence to support those claims.

Respondents were asked whether it was adult or juvenile eagles that were having an impact – the results varied, although the report doesn’t provide any quantitative evidence to support the claims (and judging by the NFUS’ inability to distinguish between a golden and a white-tailed eagle, you have to question the credibility of these answers).

Bizarrely, the respondents were asked for their perceptions of the RSPB, SNH and FCS. Unsurprisingly, the RSPB and SNH weren’t looked upon favourably. It’s not clear why this question was included, other than to stir up some tension between the stakeholders.

The respondents were asked to document the scale of the impacts (i.e. how many lambs were lost per year to sea eagles) and here we have the first sign of some data, with a reported average of 40 lambs per year per negatively affected respondent. However, look a bit closer and you’ll see that these purported losses have been attributed to sea eagles without explaining how losses to other factors (such as weather, disease) were eliminated as the cause of death.

WTE Mike WatsonRespondents were then asked about the impact of sea eagles on other biodiversity. This is the point when you realise, if you hadn’t already, that this survey is nothing more than an outlet for some seriously ingrained prejudices dressed up to look like a scientific report. (It’s got graphs, it must be scientific, right?!).

According to the respondents, the negative effect of sea eagles on other biodiversity ranges from ‘very negative’, ‘negative’ [anyone care to elaborate on the criteria to distinguish between ‘very negative’ and ‘negative’?!], and ‘very positive’, while others ‘did not know’. One person said there was no impact. Unfortunately, the report doesn’t provide any quantitative data to support these claims although it does say that qualitative data (i.e. anecdotal remarks) were given at a couple of meetings and included reported impacts on golden eagles, mountain hares, lapwings, curlews, black grouse, otters and rabbits). Hmm. Recent scientific studies have shown that sea eagles in western Scotland are not impacting on golden eagles at nest sites (here) nor for food (see here). We’re not aware of any studies that have examined a perceived impact of sea eagles on mountain hares, lapwings, curlews, black grouse, otters or rabbits.

There’s another section on the impact of sea eagles on the farmers’ ’emotional well-being’ (see Annex 2 for responses) and a section on the ‘positive opportunities’ that the sea eagles provide (80% of the negatively impacted respondents didn’t think there were any).

And finally, the farmers were asked for other comments on sea eagles and the management scheme (see Annex 3). These included:

“I think S.N.H. and R.S.P.S. [sic] should be prosecuted for cruelty”;

“Have nothing positive to say about sea eagles whatsoever”;

“This is against my human rights to be subjected to such fear on a daily basis”;

“It is vital for individual businesses to be able to apply for a licence to shoot rogue birds”;

“Sea eagles numbers need to be reduced to a manageable level quickly or culled completely”;

“The situation is out of control in many places, far too many raptors and pine martens and heading for 100 ravens”;

“They should not be hear [sic]”;

“I have no problem with sea eagles”.

The report’s recommendations seem to boil down to the NFUS wanting SNH to publicly admit that sea eagles take live lambs (they’ve actually already done this in several of their reports, see below), wanting to get NFUS reps on the Sea Eagle Management Team (this is a group of senior scientists and sea eagle experts who have overseen the Reintroduction Projects), wanting SNH to make more money available for sheep management measures, and wanting the establishment of a long-term management plan for sea eagles to be put in place (they don’t actually specify what they mean by ‘management plan’ but you can probably guess).

SNH has already said ‘no’ to a sea eagle control scheme (see here). There have also been a number of government-funded studies looking at the impact of sea eagles on lambs (see here and here for the now infamous Gairloch study, and here for a study from Mull).

The government’s Sea Eagle Management Scheme (which provided payments to help sheep farmers reduce conflict with sea eagles) ended in summer 2013. According to the Environment Minister, a new scheme is expected to be launched in Spring 2014 following discussions with all stakeholders (see here).

Download the NFUS Sea Eagle Action Plan: NFUS Sea Eagle Action Plan March 2014

Sea Eagle photo by Mike Watson

24 thoughts on “NFUS publishes its proposed sea eagle action plan”

  1. Farmers as victims again. NFUS rôle is to keep the victim profile high and the entitlement culture healthy with stuff like this. They represent a minority of farmers however.

  2. Well if all that baloney proves their case then there should be no argument when multiple raptor poisonings and multiple incidences of poisoned bait being found on an estate then the estate owners and or employees are indisputably to blame. AND SHOULD BE PROSECUTED.

    One other thing. Am I being naive to think that the patrons of the grouse shoot would not accept lower bag numbers given an explanation of the estates new environmental policies? And even give their business to more sensible estates. Do these people want their names to be associated with raptor persecution? Do we know who they are?

    1. Duncan, can I ask what is the main food source for these Nowegian coastal birds? It seems that food source depends on the habitat and an individual bird’s preferences, where some birds are predisposed to take lambs and others will not. Very interesting film though.

      1. The link in the main article to a of predation on lambs on Mull makes some incredibly interesting reading.
        The study found that one pair killed 23 lambs (health of lamb unspecified) out of a total of 29 lamb killings for the whole island over a 4 year period with 8 pairs studied. Even with that high predation pair the numbers varied greatly with one year making up 13 of the total of 29 killings for the whole 8 pairs over the 4 year period. It indicates that there was very probably another factor involved.
        For a country as large as Norway to have no reported problems is incredibly interesting. It could be that their sheep are less susceptible to the sheep diseases found in Scotland. Making them less susceptible to eagle predation? But diseased adult sheep also make a good food source throughout the year if the farmer isn’t forced to bury them.
        PS Not sure why that study starts only in last week of April. Lambing starts earlier than that which is even demonstrated in their graph of predation which is already peaking at the start of their study period.

          1. It is worth mentioning that Alv Ottar is himself the Norwegian equivalent of a crofter, has kept sheep all his life, and has been president both of the Soay-type sheep owner’s association (the main kind on the coast, kept out all year), and of the Norwegian Ornithological Society – an unthinkable combination in Britain. All of my experience in Scotland and in Norway is that these differences in social factors are by far the most important elements in governing conflict perceptions, in wildlife as in other issues.

            It might be worth spending a few hundred quid in getting Alv Ottar over to talk to Scottish sheep farmers?

      2. All the data in Norway, from several sources – nest remains, photos at nests, stable isotope work on sea eagle tissue – indicates the diet is dominated by marine fish, with seabirds secondarily (most often nestlings); and anything that can be scavenged. Many of the fish and seabirds are probably scavenged as well. Sea eagles do not seem to be capable of killing a mammal or bird on land and in full possession of its faculties. The 1975 study in fact began with the assumption that sea eagles killed lambs (‘everyone knew’); but every time it turned out to be either a golden eagle, or misundertood scavenging. A sea eagle researcher here has even speculated to me that the lambs killed by eagles and found in sea eagle nests on Mull, were in fact killed by golden eagles – which are much more common than sea eagles on Mull – and secondarily scavenged. That is of course speculation, but educated speculation; and so far as I know no sea eagle has even been observed killing a lamb in Scotland.

        1. Thanks Duncan very informative. The WTE’s in East Scotland do actively fish when based on the coast but inland-grouse moor birds have been seen to kill Mountain Hare.

          1. There does seem to be something to be explained here – sea eagles in Norway ( a species I have a lot of experience with, professionallly and otherwise), don’t behave at all like that. Hares for example are almost invisible in the diet despite being common and a mainstay of golden eagle food throughout the country; and sea eagles never live in primarily terrestrial habitats in open uplands. East Scotland seems to be the only place in the world where they do. They do live along some bigger rivers these days, and will range over open ground for carrion at some times of year, but territories are never based away from aquatic habitats. Nor do they seem to be in the west Highlands, where there are lots of golden eagles.

            A plausible hypothesis therefore is that they are attracted to eastern grouse moors despite being much less agile and effective predators than golden eagles (their wings are optimised for economy flight, not speed and agility in attack, and they have a long, efficient, but heavy gut) because of the abundance of food and the lack of competition from golden eagles – or other medium to large raptors – which are much better adapted to active predation. This is an effect known as ‘niche release’ in ecological jargon. Usually it’s found, e.g., on remote islands where few species have colonised.

            The data on why there is a lack of competition from other raptors on grouse moors is well established. However, this is getting off the main purpose of this website, and would be better discussed elsewhere.

  3. There are several comments (13, 16, 20, 26, 29, 32, 34, 37, 49) complaining that Sea Eagles are taking/maiming adult sheep/ewes, including stong healthy ones (34), also depleting feral goats, attempting to take a young dog and bothering cattle. They must indeed be another species, sound enormous!

  4. Well reported RPS, thanks for sharing this.

    I’ve yet to look into the full NFUS document but it struck me instantly that looking at the ‘extent of impacts’ map there were very few reported ‘negative impacts’ from the Fife/ East of Scotland.

    Over 6 years >80 birds were released in one (quite small) geographical area – an output far exceeding any natural reproduction capabilities. These birds were young and possibly more likely to create a problem for farmers. Granted, adult birds raising chicks would have a larger requirement for food than the odd juvenile, but >80 juveniles is a large number and 1 complaint in Fife and 1 in Perthshire is a very low number when compared to other areas in Scotland.

    Perhaps it is linked to farmers in Argyll often seeing WTE, perhaps also seeing them on a carcass. If raptors are seen then they must be causing the problem. I have yet to see convincing evidence that WTE regularly take healthy live lambs or healthy adult sheep, and as long as numbers such as ” mean of >40 lambs taken per negatively impacted farmer” are bandied around then no-one will believe anything some of these farmers/NFUS say.

    The numbers of lambs & sheep ‘taken’ must be accurately (not approximately) adjusted for those already dead/ dead from natural causes/weather deaths/ very sick animals/ other predators involved in animals death etc, etc.. The need for evidence based conclusions, not assumption based is vital in any discussion. All scientific studies to date prove the impact of WTE on sheep farmers/crofters is far exaggerated by some farmers (either due to not knowing any better or because they have other reasons to exaggerate the issue). Until the NFUS comes into the middle ground they are only exacerbating the problem and making more farmers have extremist views and become more hard line anti-WTE.

    1. I put it down to gossip and hysteria, plain and simple.
      Some myths just stick and it takes the intelligence shown by the Norwegians as in that video clip linked to above to transcend them.
      If scientists can believe a myth that Neanderthals were stupid (as reported in today’s Guardian) then farmers.with built in prejudices will be extremely susceptible to gossip and myths.
      A lot of the propaganda comes from very outspoken farmers who don’t care about facts as long as it stirs people up so they think they have some political influence. It really is a minor level hate crime.
      The tosh that is repeated endlessly on Mull about eagles taking, goats, hares and rabbits has even been repeated by a local politician but has no evidence to support it whatsoever. Note incidentally that all those 3 species are introduced.

  5. Importance of identifying the right animal for your publicity was highlighted by farmers when Tesco used the wrong cow for their milk cartons ( They accused Tesco of being “out of touch” and found the error “quite amusing”. Shame they can’t tell a golden eagle from a sea eagle. One wonders if they are mixing them both up with buzzards!

  6. These findings are seriously at odds with any scientifice research done on Sea Eagles and their diet throughout their current world range. Real pathetic stuff by NFUS that should be treated with the contempt it deserves

  7. I can’t understand why farmers allow themselves to be represented by such morons.
    I live on farm in an eagle hot spot (positive use of the term) with White-tailed Eagles nesting just over the hill and where the farm is constantly patrolled by breeding adults from other pairs as well as roaming immatures. The farmer has never seen any negative impact of a White-tailed Eagle. He constantly bemoans the Great Black-backed Gulls, Hooded Crows and Ravens though.
    I am not defending the culling of the latter species only using it as an illustration that this farmer is not in denial about his struggle with nature. He has mused that if he did see one take a lamb, his first reaction would probably be awe rather than anger.
    As Stephen Welsh pointed out the idea of WtEs taking ewes is, like the rest of this report, laughable.

    1. Some of them allow themselves to be represented by morons, because they are morons themselves. The vast number off ill-informed, prejudiced and idiotic remarks is proof positive of that.

      NFU Scotland has managed to compile one of the most ludicrous, unprofessional and unscientific reports I have ever read. It’s not something that I like to do, but the publication of this rubbish has just given me another reason for a temporary boycott of Scottish produce. One day, the idiots in charge of NFUS might just realise that such prejudice and lies only results in alienating the public, leading to a loss of revenue for the very members they represent.

  8. The main victims here are British/Scottish taxpayers. I do not wish to see any of my taxes spent through the CAP going to farmers who only care about sheep production. There are plenty of great farmers, who provide multiple public benefits and I am very happy to support them with my taxes through the CAP. Those who do not want to provide public benefits for the large sums of public money they currently receive should not receive a penny.

  9. Good point Peter – many of these farmers wouldn’t be in business without taxpayer support, something they tend to forget all too often

  10. It’s so ridiculous I can’t think of an appropriate answer that would do this report justice, on second thoughts, maybe I can though ???

  11. The Norwegian farmer who appeared in the YouTube clip mentioned above was also interviewed for the main Norwegian nature documentary series (‘Ut i naturen’, on the BBC-equivalent NRK1, broadcast January 2013) when they did a programme on the Norwegian-sourced Irish reintroduction, at the part where Irish sheep farmers – who had heard about Scottish concerns – were interviewed shortly after the first release in 2007. The passage might be worth relaying to politicians and farmers in Scotland.

    (Narrator) “In Norway 8000 white-tailed sea eagles share our country with people and livestock, and we have learned to live together without serious problems.”

    (Ove Løfsnæs, sheep farmer) “Our farm has 250 sheep, most on a slightly larger island and in addition two smaller islands where we have sheep. Our experience is that there is no problem. Here we have lots of white- tailed sea eagles, steadily more white-tailed sea eagles, now there are really many. The sheep lamb out, everything happens out. The lambs are really small when they are born. The white-tailed sea eagles sit more or less in the middle of the flock, and we have not had any experience that they take lambs. They eat the afterbirths from the lambing, and sometimes lambs die at lambing, or we lose them (i.e. they die soon after).

    Obviously, we feel they are a part of nature and the nature we live in and use in the business we operate. It’s absolutely positive that there are sea eagles here.”

    In Ireland it’s almost completely subsided as an issue; not a single alleged incident so far.

    1. A small correction: I checked up with Allan Mee, who runs the Irish reintroduction. Lamb predation has subsided almost completely as an issue, but there have been a couple of fringe allegations of sheep predation from individuals. Nothing that stands up or that has been taken up by farmer’s organisations.

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