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22 September 2010 08:33:06 |News

Terror in the skies

A sea eagle recently introduced to the east coast of Scotland as part of a wildlife programme has launched a series of attacks on nearby free range hens.
Four birds were killed in its first attack on the hens at Balmalcolm Farm near Cupar, another six have died in subsequent attacks and production amongst the farm’s layers has been decimated as a result of the fear caused by the sea eagle’s continued appearance over the farm.
The sea eagle – the United Kingdom’s largest bird of prey - is believed to be one of 19 such birds released in Fife this year. The birds arrived from Norway in what is the fourth year of the East Scotland Sea Eagles project - a partnership scheme between RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry Commission Scotland. The attacks at Balmalcolm Farm will raise concerns about whether sea eagles should ever have been introduced to this part of Scotland. The Samson family, whose free range hens are the ones under attack at Balmalcolm Farm, certainly have grave concerns.
"I don’t understand why they decided to release them in Fife," said Treina Samson, whose father, Alec, owns the farm. "They are amazing birds and it is great to have them in the country - but it is going to have quite an impact on
our hens. It’s not really the area
to be releasing them as it’s
highly populated and highly
In its first attack on the
farm, the sea eagle managed to get into one of the Samsons’ hen houses. "I went out to shut them in at about 9.15; it was dark," said Treina. "There were no hens out. There were no strange noises or anything. The next morning when my husband, Paddy, went to open them up he saw some guts and feathers outside and thought we had had a fox. Then he opened up and nothing came out. Then he heard a strange noise. He shut it back up and looked through the window. Instead of a fox, he saw an eagle," she said.
Treina says that the sea
eagle has kept returning
since that first attack. Although it
has not managed to gain access
to any of the houses again, it has
taken about ten birds in all so far. "It
has been out and about and around in the fields. We find heads of hens and things," said Treina, who said the impact was felt not only in the loss of individual birds but also in the loss of production as a result of the fear amongst the laying flock.
"The ones in the hut that the eagle was in for the night are not laying at all at the moment. They have completely stopped," said Treina, who said the family had six huts housing a total of 150 birds. The eggs the birds produce are sold through the family’s farm shop. Treina said it was noticeable that whenever the eagle was around it scared the birds and affected their productivity.
Those responsible for the East Scotland Sea Eagles reintroduction programme say the sea eagles are fitted with transmitters and the situation at Balmalcolm Farm is being monitored, but the RSPB insists that the area in which the birds have been released is suitable because sea eagles are lowland birds.
East Scotland Sea Eagles is the third phase of what the RSPB says has been a successful reintroduction programme that began on the island of Rum in 1975. The RSPB says the return of sea eagles to Mull, Skye and other parts of western Scotland has been one of the outstanding conservation success stories of recent times, although farmers in the west of Scotland have previously expressed concern about the loss of livestock to the birds. They have blamed sea eagles for taking lambs from farms close to where they have been introduced. Carcases of lambs have reportedly been examined by vets and found to have talon damage and injuries caused by being dropped from a height.
Sea eagles became extinct in the British Isles after the last native pair bred in Skye in 1916. The birds disappeared from east Scotland much earlier. By the mid 1800s the birds were confined to wild and remote areas on Scotland’s west coast.
But the RSPB says that although people have come to associate the birds with the isolated, mountainous west coast of Scotland away from human habitation, the birds’ natural habitat is coastal areas, lowland wetlands and estuarine and riparian areas with shallow, productive waters. It says that this kind of habitat is widely available on Scotland’s east coast.
Plans had been drawn up to introduce sea eagles to East Anglia, despite fierce opposition from local farmers – including free range egg producers. The plans were dealt a blow earlier this year when Natural England announced that it had withdrawn funding for the proposal under the new coalition Government’s attempt to cut costs.
Free range egg producers and other farmers in Suffolk have been running a campaign against proposals that could have resulted in 15 sea eagles introduced to the Suffolk coast each year over a five year period. ’Say No to the Sea Eagles’ signs appeared at many roadside sites in Suffolk, and the NFU has been active in its opposition to the plan, which was being pursued by Natural England in partnership with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
In its opposition to the plans for East Anglia, the NFU pointed to the experience of farmers in Scotland. It said that evidence from Scotland showed that where the species had been introduced, predation on lambs could sometimes become a problem.
The NFU said that 40 per cent of all UK chickens kept for egg production were now kept outdoors on free range farms. For free range egg producers, the threat would not be confined to sea eagles taking chickens. The effect of birds of prey hovering above would also have a big impact on productivity.
The experience of the Samson family at Balmalcolm Farm seems to lend weight to their argument.

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