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Sea eagles to swoop on Suffolk

PUBLISHED: 19:03 26 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:32 06 July 2010

Natural England and the RSPB are currently consulting with landowners and farmers about their plans to introduce the white-tailed eagle, commonly known as the sea eagle, in Suffolk as part of a conservation programme for this majestic bird.

Natural England and the RSPB are currently consulting with landowners and farmers about their plans to introduce the white-tailed eagle, commonly known as the sea eagle, in Suffolk as part of a conservation programme for this majestic bird.

As well as the conservation benefits, they believe there will be knock-on benefit for the wider economy. But the landowning community will take some convincing that the introduction of a large bird of prey into a heavily farmed and well populated landscape is a good idea, as Sarah Chambers found out.

THE idea of a sea eagle soaring over the East Anglian coast prompts many different reactions.

For Jimmy Butler, a free range pig farmer based at Blythburgh, near Southwold, the main emotion is dread.

He fears that if Natural England and the RSPB press ahead with their plans to introduce around 50 birds in Suffolk, over a period of years, the consequences for his large outdoor herd could be catastrophic.

The conservationists have indicated a willingness to compensate any landowners adversely affected by the proposed re-introduction of the bird of prey to England following a gap of more than 200 years but Mr Butler is sceptical.

“I think they are living in a fool's paradise, I really do,” he says. “If my pig litter mortality rate goes up two or three per cent how do I prove it's the eagles that did it?”

The farmer fears that his animals will be spooked by such a large bird flying overhead, and that the result may be that powerful sows will break through barriers or that in their panic they will lie on top of their litters.

“I think our pre-weaning mortality will just go through the roof,” he says. “It's something swooping over the top of them and it scares the hell out of them.

“If these sows break out - and they will - what if some run out onto the A12 and someone gets killed? Legally, I would be liable. Also, we fear for the wildlife.”

With 35-40pc of the UK breeding herd outdoors, the introduction of such an animal could have serious consequences, he fears.

Glenn Moore, a fishery and game farm owner based near Beccles, shares similar concerns. For him, a major fear is the potential damage to his large carp, which cost in the hundreds of pounds. But there is also the potential effect on his game birds.

“We love wildlife but it's just so silly to bring something like that into this area,” he says. “I think it's just a stupid idea.”

Their worries are shared by the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) and the National Farmers' Union (NFU), but Natural England and the RSPB believes that there would be negligible harm to livestock, if at all, and that the county could benefit greatly from the introduction of such an iconic bird.

Natural England is keen to follow up on the success of the white-tailed eagle's re-introduction in Scotland. But critics argue there is no firm proof they were in East Anglia in the first place and question the merit of introducing them now into an intensively farmed part of the UK.

Rob Macklin, Suffolk area manager for the RSPB, counters that the white-tailed eagle is not as painted by the objectors.

They are “opportunist feeders”, he says, and will often scavenge for food. Livestock would certainly not be their food of choice, he believes, when other choices, away from cultivated land with its many human disturbances, exist.

“I think they would take certainly our rabbit population. We found this in Scotland. They also like fish as well so I imagine they will be hunting in the estuaries.”

Conservationists like Mr Macklin don't believe the eagles will be a threat to livestock and that if they grab the occasional sick or dying lamb or piglet, this will be due to their opportunist feeding habits, and that the animals they select will be unviable anyway.

“I think we have to be honest and say they might take the occasional piglet and the occasional lamb,” he concedes.

The conservationists want to achieve some kind of meeting of minds with the sceptics, but it will not be an easy task.

“We do want consensus on this. We'll basically talk through these issues,” says Mr Macklin.

Nicola Currie, CLA eastern region director, has been working hard behind the scenes to get across the very different viewpoint of landowners and farmers to sharing territory with a large raptor neighbour.

She believes that the large sums it will cost to introduce the birds could be far better spent. She points to a 500,000 euro project about to start at Havergate Island and Orfordness to improve the habitat by creating coastal lagoons and marshes for the many rare birds who arrive there.

“It's great we are spending that sort of money on our waders and all the rest of it, but then we are spending a little bit more on something that's going to eat them,” she says.

Her other concern is that compensation schemes have often proved a nightmare to navigate, and effectively unworkable.

Duncan McNiven, of Natural England, says they have been exploring the potential problems the birds might cause.

A report by FWAG, the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group looked at vulnerable livestock and by assessing current mortality rates and predation patterns, the potential effects eagles might have. It looked at evidence of sea eagle predation from studies across Europe. A study on Mull found that sea eagle predation amounted to 1-2pc of overall lamb mortality and many of these lambs were found to be non-viable anyway. In other parts of Europe, there was less evidence of sea eagle predation of livestock.

This mirrors what Natural England found when talking to farmers in Germany about their experiences.

“One shepherd we talked to grazed 2000 sheep which had 800 lambs a year outdoors in an area with six pairs of sea eagles but has never had any predation problems with them. Foxes and racoon dogs were their problem predators,” says Mr McNiven.

He acknowledges that the FWAG report suggests that outdoor poultry would be more vulnerable than pigs and could have single figure predation events, but possible stress events could the more problematic. For pigs, it speculated the effects of disturbance might be a bigger issue than direct predation.

Because the FWAG report was light on recommendations for managing the livestock situation in the light of any eagle releases, Natural England brought in the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) to develop a comprehensive management package which might allow livestock farmers and eagles to co-exist without problems. These could include anything from incentive schemes to financially benefit farmers and mitigation schemes to lessen the impact either by altering farming methods or deterring eagles.

“What we really need is for farmers and their representatives to sit down with FERA to discuss their ideas constructively to see if there could be a way forward on this issue that would mutually benefit both eagles and farmers,” he says.

Mrs Currie says they are waiting to hear back from FERA, who have been invited to visit farms and affected businesses first hand at critical points in the year so that they can see the potential problems for themselves.

As well as possible mitigation or financial compensation for farmers, the conservationists believe they have another potent argument in favour of the scheme, beyond conserving a threatened species. Tapping the Suffolk coast's tourism potential, particularly in the “shoulder” or less popular months, is seen as important to an economy which increasingly relies on tourists and visitors to sustain it.

“It becomes a very popular tourist attraction when people see these birds,” says Mr Macklin.

“They are pretty big and they are quite spectacular as well.”

Mr McNiven points to the reaction of tourism chiefs when the Suffolk Coast and Health Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty partnership met in December 2009 to discuss the proposal.

“Representatives from the tourism sector at that meeting said that whilst some hotels in East Suffolk are full at peak times, there were 22 million people within two hours' drive and the aim was to get them to stay longer,” he says.

“They described the project as 'iconic' and 'wonderful...a marketing man's dream'. These views reflect the sentiments of business owners who attended one of the project's drop-in days in June 2007 and expressed enthusiasm for more year-round business.”

Mr Macklin points out that on Mull, the arrival of the sea eagle is estimated to bolster the economy to the tune of about £2million.

“If you run hotels and bed and breakfasts you want people in the shoulder months,” he says. “We are looking at that to see how much would come into the economy.”

The consultations, ongoing since 2007 with focus groups, drop-ins and face-to-face meetings on the Suffolk coast for stakeholders and members of the public, continue until the summer.

Natural England says it is sure that there would be many benefits to landowners with tourism-related businesses such as bed and breakfasts and farm shops if the project goes ahead.

“I think most of the population sees the benefits it brings to the local community,” says Mr Macklin.

“I hope we can bring people round. I'll be honest, I think there are people we'll never bring round.”

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