The native population of sea eagles became extinct early last century, but they returned to the UK in 1975 following the importation of birds from Norway that were released on the Island of Rum.
That was followed by a series of importations in a successful scheme of reintroduction of the species across Scotland that ended recently with the release of the last six in the east of the country.
As they flourished, so has the controversy that surrounds them grown. Farmers and crofters, particularly on their stronghold of Mull, claim that they take young lambs to feed their chicks in the spring. Some of the worst affected have been demanding compensation for their losses, or a cull.
A report, commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), at the request of Scotland's National Species Reintroduction Forum, to help inform the debate about the future management of reintroduced species, reveals similar concerns of lamb predation in Ireland and lambs and reindeer calves in Norway.
There can be no doubt that eagles are regularly witnessed taking healthy young lambs.
Indeed, many of their nesting sites will be surrounded by incriminating remains, but it does not necessarily follow that all of the remains belong to once-healthy lambs.
Conservationists argue that eagles naturally scavenge for carrion and most lambs taken to nests were probably found dead – and in a cold, wet spring many do die naturally of hypothermia and hunger. What is needed is impartial, scientific monitoring to quantify how many healthy lambs are being taken, before there is any talk of compensation.
Not that Government compensation for agricultural losses caused by protected species of birds is a new idea. Farmers around Scotland receive annual payments for losses caused by geese during the winter.
Hungry flocks of geese congregate in preferred coastal areas to feed on crops and grass, often overgrazing and damaging them to the extent that they have to be re-sown in the spring. Using data compiled from detailed observations, it is possible to calculate the grazing pressure on each affected farm and pay differing levels of compensation, based on agreed rates per goose.
Rates are regularly renegotiated and the system has worked reasonably well up to now to the benefit of the geese. For example, the number of migratory barnacle geese over-wintering on Islay has increased from 38,000 in 2000/01, when the scheme was first introduced, to 57,000 last winter.
Red kites, like sea eagles, were also recently reintroduced to Scotland. They may not be capable of carrying off lambs, but gamekeepers and farmers in Dumfries and Galloway have accused them of taking large numbers of chicks belonging to ground-nesting birds such as pheasants and lapwings.
They have even been blamed for the general decline of all small birds in some areas.
As with sea eagles, we need impartial scientific data to establish if red kites are the culprits, or whether there are other factors, like modern farming practices or climate change at play. After all, lapwings are declining in areas where there are no red kites.
Having said all that, I do believe that we will have to consider the future management of successfully reintroduced species – and that will undoubtedly involve culling.
Rats and mice have always had a poor PR image and few think twice about trapping or poisoning them. Foxes got some relief when hunting by hounds was made illegal, but they are still routinely shot and snared by land managers.
It's much the same with other indigenous predators like stoats, weasels, crows and magpies, as well as herbivorous pests like deer and rabbits.
Other species, inadvertently introduced into this country, like grey squirrels, that threaten the survival of their native red cousins, and vicious mink, are also aggressively culled – so there is no credible argument against culling deliberately reintroduced species if they are proved to be harming an ecosystem.
As I said, goose conservation has been a success story but numbers in some areas have increased to levels that are causing excessive harm to agriculture and the environment. Public and European funding is now supporting the management and control of resident greylag geese on the Uists, and Coll and Tiree – through shooting and the spoiling of eggs.
Other new pilot projects will build on this approach and test more thoroughly how effectively shooting levels can be managed, through setting agreed shooting levels and regularly monitoring populations.
The SNH report I referred to earlier reveals that 129 reintroductions involving protected species have taken place in Europe. To provide more detailed information, the authors completed case studies focused on species with complex management challenges, such as beaver, sea eagle, grey wolf and lynx.
As with Scottish geese, some of these reintroduced species had their populations or habitats controlled, when their number were healthy and thriving and there were conflicts with other land uses.
Under current European laws, legal protection for protected species is strict, but member states may deviate ("derogate") from the rules, subject to satisfying certain conditions, including that the species is judged to be in favourable conservation status.
Such derogations are regularly used in species management throughout Europe and may have to be more widely adopted by the UK in the future.
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