Tavish Scott: Tourism push creates cash conundrum

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CROFTERS are lambing. There is no better time of year, at least on a fine morning. The terrible spring made lambing in the southern areas of Scotland a ghastly experience.

But those who lamb further north start later in the spring, so there is grass for ewes lambing outside.

Shetland friends recounted a lambing tale from Argyll last week. Driving south to Oban, they stopped next to a lambing park where a shepherd was walking among her flock. It was a fine sunny day. She was asked what were the challenges of lambing. Sea eagles were the answer.

Now, the sea eagle is a bird that is not familiar to Shetland crofters. They have been plagued by ravens, which watch for newborn lambs. A ewe delivering her second lamb leaves a first one notably vulnerable. But a sea eagle is a different matter altogether.

This is Europe’s biggest bird of prey. The Argyll crofter had seen or sometimes only heard the swoop of the enormous 8ft-wing span and a lamb was bodily removed from the field. These are not just sick or dead lambs; some are perfectly healthy. Crofters are, therefore, losing some of their valuable lamb crop. These are sold in the autumn to farms for finishing and end up as the delicious product on kitchen tables here and across Europe.

Government supports livestock farming in Scotland. European funds are used to keep rural and isolated communities alive with active crofting. Gairloch crofters cite the loss of 200 lambs in 2008 after 15 sea eagles were released in the area by the RSPB and Scottish National Heritage. Not all lamb losses can be blamed on sea eagles.

Since 2011 £165,000 of taxpayers money has been used to fund a sea eagle management scheme for crofters from Skye to the Outer Hebrides and south to Mull. The scheme’s aim is to reduce the risk of losing livestock by keeping them healthy and safe. But SNH now accepts that the scheme will have to expand as sea eagles move into new areas, leading to more crofters losing lambs at lambing. The Scottish Government has confirmed the impact of the sea eagle on sheep farming. All this reflects the rising numbers of sea eagles that are breeding successfully.

However, government money paid for the reintroduction of sea eagles in 2007. Eaglets were imported from Norway. The argument is that these impressive birds will be good for tourism. That is no doubt true, although demonstrating this might be a challenge. The RSPB claims that sea eagle tourism income brought £5 million to Mull in the five years since a previous study.

So, public money is spent on introducing sea eagles. Then on protecting crofters’ lambs. European money pays crofters for livestock production. The taxpayer is subsidising the reintroduction of a bird and then crofters directly affected by that policy decision. Is this an acceptable trade-off? Or should the taxpayer ask whether this is the most effective way to promote nature tourism on the west coast?

• Tavish Scott is Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland