Sunday 5 September 2010

Sea eagles and sheep-killers

It's been a bit quiet round here lately because I've spent a fortnight on the Isle of Skye, where the only internet connection comes from walking up the hill with my mobile phone.

I took the opportunity to go on one of the tourist boats out of Portree to see the sea eagles. You pay your £15, are herded onto the boat with a dozen or so others, and motor out to the rock where the eagles nest. This year, apparently the resident male has found himself a new female, and they've nested in a slightly different spot to last year. Hence the hilarious spectacle of visitors sitting glued to a TV monitor this spring, watching an empty nest.

Anyway, the boat rocks up at the appointed spot, and a couple of other boats materialise nearby. This is as slick a tourist operation as it gets on Skye. By now the chick knows the signs, and is screeching for his dinner.

Mr Captain pulls a dead mackerel out of the coolbox, injects it with air so it won't sink too fast (it's amazing how fast a dead mackerel sinks), and lobs it as far as he can - 15-20 yards - from the stern.

The iconic, free, noble, independent spirit of everything wild ruffles his feathers, shakes and shits. He goes 'Meh, alright then,' and flaps lazily towards the boat. With the economy of effort that is the mark of a true predator, he makes the dive, grabs the fish, and flaps off, avoiding the mobbing gulls as he heads back to the rock. He lands only half-way up - why waste energy carrying a fish 100ft higher than necessary?

Soon the chick has joined him and is tucking into breakfast. The captain tells us how lucky we are, and we scoot off to look for seals, otters and porpoises. Careful not to over-feed the goose that lays the golden egg, they throw only one fish per trip. That way the eagles are still hungry when the 12 o'clock boat comes round. And the 2 o'clock, and the 4 o'clock.

I was thrilled by the sight of the eagle; its power and beauty and grace. And yet I wanted to cry. It was like I was 10 again, peering through the bars at the polar bear at Chessington Zoo. At least these eagles are free, but they've been reduced to a freak show, dependent on humans to throw them their dinner.

I just longed for the eagle to look down from his rock and screech: "Yer can stick yer crummy mackerel where the sun don't shine - I'm off to kill a sheep!"

...talking of which, something is killing lambs on Skye. The farmers are worried, and they don't know where to point the finger.

It started in June. Up till then, lamb losses were normal - the odd one taken by a fox, a few killed by crows and ravens. The ravens on Skye are beyond a joke - I watched 24 wheeling like vultures over the Portree road one morning. They have learnt to descend on the sheep 'park' mob-handed, and work together, like Jurassic Park's velociraptors, to separate a lamb from its mother. Once the lamb is isolated, their huge beaks rip out its eyes and tongue in a flash. Like the velociraptors' dinner, you're alive when they start to eat you... Is that cruelty? You can't blame the ravens; they wouldn't undersand the concept. Yet the suffering is immense. Funny thing, nature. Anyway, the farmers apply to SNH for a licence to protect their sheep and are graciously granted permission to kill one a year. If that's not taking the piss, I don't know what is. And don't even get me started on cormorants!

Anyhow, in June the mysterious killer struck. It's been killing sheep almost daily since. The lamb (born in April) pictured was found by the farmer last Tuesday. It has puncture wounds and tears around the neck. This one was lucky - it was found still alive, brought in and given penicillin, and now it's healing well. Many others have simply died or disappeared.

The vet thought the culprit might be an otter, or an eagle. The farmer has seen otter attacks before and doesn't think that's the explanation. He's sure it's an eagle. Probably not a sea eagle, he says, as he rarely sees those on his hill - although the crofters at Glendale are losing lambs to the sea eagle - but a golden eagle was seen in this area on the Monday, the day before this sheep was found. He cupped his hands into talons and held them over the lamb's neck. His fingers fitted the marks remarkably closely.

He's stoical about it, but he can't afford to lose lambs like this. At up to £70 per lamb, at this rate he'll be bankrupted.

He explained his philosophy about foxes to me: "I don't mind the foxes living on the hill," he said, "but every so often one turns killer. We shoot that one, and the killings stop."

I didn't ask whether he applied the same principle to eagles. I suspect I knew the answer already.

Real places, real people, scraping a real living doing real work and dealing with real problems. It's a million miles from the desk pilots with their romantic notions of how the countryside ought to work.


Sooty said...

Hi James hope you enjoyed your break,think there are always going to be some conflicts beween predators and farm animals andgame birds and we will have to be open to some compromise.

James Marchington said...

Thanks Sooty - yes it was great. Tales of hen harriers, salmon, tepees, midges and more to come in future posts. Meanwhile you can get a sneak preview of what I've been up to on my flickr photostream.

Alan Tilmouth said...

James, good to see you've spent you're hols in a productive way with the creative writing course and Skye Amateur Dramatics Society.
I think I can put a name to that Eagle, the one that has been taking lambs 'almost daily', as an aside we've had 68 days since the end of June so would that be 60 ish lambs? Sure the farmer must have told you how many he's lost. Anyway I digress, last time I came across an eagle big enough to have that kind of appetite it was carrying a wizard in Lord of the Rings, prior to that the last report was in the early sevnties in the Med during the filming of Jason & the Argonauts.
We must let Mark Avery know as with continued evidence of their existence they may wish to consider re-introduction. Let's face it the loss of the odd crofter or gamekeeper wouldn't make that much difference now would it?
Loved the velociraptor imagery too, will fit in very nicely with the Jurassic views of some of your readers no doubt ;)

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Had a quick squint at the holiday snaps: Is your mrs available for fishing lessons? She seems to have a pretty impressive catch rate!

James Marchington said...

Hi Alan, good to see you're keeping that sarcastic tone well honed. That particular farmer has lost around 25 lambs more than he would normally expect so far; other farmers in the area are losing them at a similar rate. If you know the area, you'll know that with sheep spread across many miles of open hill, it's impossible to be precise, or to be on the spot quickly when one is killed.

I was surprised how open minded he was about the whole thing, and he certainly wasn't wanting to go hunting down eagles, although he would like to know what's doing it of course, and protect his livestock and his livelihood.

Are you seriously suggesting an eagle wouldn't attack a sheep? In some places golden eagles are used to hunt wolves and deer (try a search on youtube) so I don't think it would have much bother with a part-grown sheep, especially a small blackface cross.

I wondered if a young bird was honing its hunting skills, and found sheep are easier to catch than rabbits.

Or, as the farmer is very willing to accept, maybe it's not an eagle at all but something else. He's fairly sure he can rule out foxes, dogs, otters, etc, but he's running out of possibilities. You got any ideas?

Give Avery half a chance and he'd reintroduce the pterodactyl. Funny he's not very keen on eagle owls though, maybe it's their habit of eating harriers (or do you think that's a fairy story too?).

James Marchington said...

Hi SBW, glancing through your blog you've been busy while I've been away - love the PETA vid! I'll have a proper catch-up when I get a chance.

Yes, that Mrs M is getting infuriatingly good - you'd think she'd have the decency to catch one or two less than me!

The Suburban Bushwacker said...


Yeah been a few changes and a few more on the way
be good to catch up - been way too long

vicky said...

Alan, why so negative? Why so defensive? These farmers sound quite reasonable guys, they don't sound like they want to persecute anything either. maybe the RSPB could help identify the culprit. (Cameras, hides, volunteers- all of which I know the RSPB could muster) And IF it is a bird of prey or a pack of ravens (or even a nasty bunch of sparrows!) maybe the RSPB could help advise the farmers on how to minimise losses.
I fail to understand why farmers and gamekeepers are allowed to use their judgement in some controlling some predators (foxes, stoats, magpies for instance) while other predators must not be harmed (badgers, BOP, ravens). Farmers and Gamekeepers have not wiped out foxes and never will. Yes, BOP and badger populations have been wiped out or nearly wiped out in the past, but I think things have changed a lot. Give farmers some credit; they've done a huge amount in recent times to preserve our wild birds and animals....

lottie said...

Down here on the Wilts/Hants boarder we had a White-tailed Eagle over winter for several months in 2007/2008. Didn't cause much trouble and the farmer who's estate it settled on was happy to have it! Only very occasionally has a fox taken one of our new born lambs (possibly stillborn anyway) and corvids and other raptors cause little trouble too.

James Marchington said...

Hi Lottie,
That's interesting. There's no doubt that the impact of foxes, corvids etc does vary around the country - so many factors, from food/prey availability to farming methods. I'm finding that proximity to towns makes a big difference to fox problems - around some towns they'll venture out in numbers into the countryside at night, doing more damage than the area would sustain otherwise.
From my brief encounter with sea eagles, I got the impression they would take the easy option every time, and would rather pick up carrion when possible than go to the bother of chasing live quarry.

Sooty said...

Hi James from watching the reaction of a flock of sheep to the famous Sea Eagle pair on Mull,feel almost certain that they do not bother the size of lamb in your blog as they seemed to almost be very inquisitive when Sea Eagles landed regularly on their favourite knoll in the field.Of course could not say about a very young lamb but they much prefer dead stuff for a easy life and of course there always seems lots of dead sheep and I would guess deer as well.The shooters always leave the entrails whatever they are called out on the hills for the Eagles.

James Marchington said...

Hi Sooty, yes I think you're probably right (it's called gralloch). This particular farmer suspects a golden eagle, but it could well be something else. I think dear old Alan suspects the sheep are self-harming! I'm keeping an open mind, but I believe it's possible an individual bird could have taken to attacking sheep, in much the same way that a big cat can turn man-eater, perhaps due to injury or old age.

Alan Tilmouth said...

James, no I wasn't suggesting an Eagle wouldn't attack a lamb, such attacks have been occasionally documented, but Eagles aren't like Foxes they won't kill for the sake of it. My sarcasm was directed at what you appeared to be asserting, i.e. that a Golden Eagle was responsible for taking and killing live lambs "almost daily" or as you have later suggested 25 over two months. A single Eagle would not and could not consume that amount of meat even feeding young. Golden Eagles take live prey but studies also show a high reliance on carrion and lamb mortality can be significantly affected by weather. Studies such as Brown & Watson (1964) showed that the volume of carrion available to Eagles from sheep and deer carcasses (not kills) to be 12kg in an average territory. The same study highlighted Golden Eagles flying long distances to prey on Fulmars, over well stocked Sheep areas.

James Marchington said...

Hi Alan,
I think the point is, no-one knows what is doing this to the lambs. Lambs are being attacked and killed, and there are only questions, not answers.
Eagles are just one of the possible culprits; I was impressed by the farmers' reluctance to blame them before all other possibilities are eliminated.
It doesn't really fit the typical pattern of any known predator, which is what makes it odd and worrying.
Now if it turned out to actually be a 'rogue' eagle, that would be interesting. Could the bird fanatics compromise to the extent they'd allow a proven sheep-eating individual eagle to be killed? Or would they want the farmers to just lump it?
We'll probably never know.

brocair said...

Re your comment that 'we'll probably never know'. Actually we do. In the late '70's (approx) a notably large hen eagle was killing lambs regularly in Glenelg. The landowner, Lord Burton, decided to 'test the system' by applying for a licence (to the then Nature Conservancy) to kill this individual rogue eagle. There followed the usual press sensationalism, 'save the eagle campaigns' etc; official observers were sent in; they saw the eagle take upto three (live) lambs in a day; result - no licence to cull. The system failed. Any one think the result would be any different today?