A PHOTOGRAPHER who pictured a sea eagle carrying off a lamb has responded to those who cast doubts on its authenticity, saying there were 20 eye witnesses to the event.

When Ricky Clark, who lives and works on the land near Kilchoan on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, posted his photograph on the online Kilchoan Diary, it reignited the debate over the price some are paying for the rein-troduction of the raptors.

For years crofters and farmers on the west coast and in the islands have reported serious predation by Britain's largest bird of prey on lambs.

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The birds were persecuted to extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but a full-scale reintroduction programme got underway on Rum, one of the Small Isles, in 1975. Now there are thought to be 80 breeding pairs in the west.

Mr Clark is interested in wildlife and supports the reintroduction of this "magnificent bird". It was last week he took his controversial photograph.

"I was taking a party from an English university on a day out and I was actually looking for lapwings. It was one of the girls who said 'look there is a big kite up there' and I said 'no that's an eagle'. By the time I got out the van I could see that it was carrying something. Then within 30 or 40 seconds a second eagle appeared and then a third and a fourth.

"We were there for about 45 minutes in all and the sea eagles were still there when we left. The carcass was dropped because the other eagles were having a bash at the one that had it. One eventually went down and tried to take it away, but didn't manage and landed again. The last I saw of the carcass, it was on the ground with an eagle near it."

He said he could see there were four mature sea eagles with their white tails and one less mature. He knew the lamb wasn't alive.

"From its pelvis down, much of the lamb had been eaten so it was clearly dead. But I have no idea whether it was still alive when the eagle got it. That's the million dollar question."

He said that as far as was known there were no sea eagles resident in that part of of Ardnamurchan, but they would come over from Mull, Morvern and the Small Isles. More were seen at this time of year, but as the autumn and winter came there would only be one or two following a gamekeeper around when he was out on the hill stalking, As to those who doubted the photograph, Mr Clark said: "There were 11 students, two tutors and me. An estate worker passed. A member of the public stopped and four tourists were sitting further up the road. They all saw it."