PEACE has broken out in a long-running dispute between crofters, farmers and conservations over whether sea eagles are now killing lambs.

Crofters and farmers have argued that they are losing out financially due to livestock killings by the birds, which were first reintroduced to Scotland in 1975 after being hunted to extinction in the early 20th century.

The Government wildlife agency Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) had claimed such deaths were rare occurrences.

But now SNH has accepted that Britain's largest bird of prey is indeed killing lambs more often than thought, and not just taking dead ones.

And farmers say they recognise that sea eagles are here to stay and are an important part of Scotland's biodiversity.

NFU Scotland has also committed itself to working with SNH and others to find ways of reducing any impacts of sea eagles on farming and crofting interests.

The development will lead to the continuation of the Sea Eagle Management Scheme, compensating farmers and crofters for the effect on their stock of the raptors.

The project, which ended recently, is expected to be back in place by spring 2015, subject to funding approval from SNH and the Scottish Government.

A study in the Gairloch area of Wester Ross for the agency in 2009 found less than two per cent of deaths amongst lambs could be attributed to sea eagles.

But those working the land had the evidence of their own eyes. One crofter on Skye said he kept "an almost sacrificial stock" of poorer sheep on the hill to stop the sea eagles coming lower down for healthier lambs.

Meanwhile in the Outer Isles there were reports that the birds known as "flying barn doors" were not just attacking lambs, but were killing larger stock such as hoggs, the stage between lambs and sheep.

But a new joint statement of intent on balancing the needs of sheep farmers and crofters with the conservation of sea eagles has now been announced by SNH and NUF Scotland.

This will now be developed through the Sea Eagle Scheme Steering Panel and new local stakeholder groups.

Stakeholder groups covering the main sea eagle areas are expected to be set up by November.

These will initially cover Mull, North Argyll and Lochaber; Skye and Lochalsh; and Gairloch and Wester Ross.

The steering panel will develop proposals for sheep, sea eagle and habitat management measures. A Sea Eagle Action Plan will also be published by September 2016 and implemented by March 2017

Environment and Climate Change Minister Paul Wheelhouse said: "Sea eagles are a magnificent species of bird and are a valuable part of our Scotland's biodiversity and we know, from the economic impact on Mull, that sea eagles can have an important part to play in our economy.

"However, we also recognise that there have been concerns in some farming quarters that they are having an effect on lamb production."

NFUS president Nigel Miller said: "Today's agreement with SNH is a lot more than a commitment of two organisations to collaborate. It is a significant milestone towards understanding and managing Scotland's sea eagle population.

"To secure vital progress, the partnership must ensure that the process is inclusive and takes account of farmers' and crofters' views and experiences.

"Collaboration will provide the foundations for a programme that minimises lamb losses and safeguards sheep flocks whilst also underpinning a sustainable sea eagle population."

SNH chairman Ian Ross said: "We recognise there are some concerns over the impact of sea eagles, but we are committed to working closely with NFU Scotland and its members to help tackle these challenges.

"It is also important to recognise the economic benefits that sea eagles bring to tourism, particularly to rural areas, while acknowledging that in some cases, sea eagles have taken live lambs.

"We are working closely with farmers and crofters to minimise the conflict between the birds and their impact on livestock."