There's no doubt about it, raptors engender much heated discussion. Most birdwatchers find them enthralling and some years ago, when holidaying on the island of Mull, I witnessed the fervour of visitors, craning their necks for the merest glimpse of a sea-eagle. There were dozens of them and these enthusiasts certainly add to the island's coffers in no uncertain terms ... to the tune of several millions of pounds annually. As you might imagine, I too joined in the voyeurism, training my telescope on an eyrie and enjoying some spectacular and very different wildlife watching.
But crofters up and down our rugged western seaboard are not quite so enthusiastic. Indeed, here there is also heated discussion and much speculation as to the damage being done by these 'flying barn doors' as they are sometimes known, notably in the form of lambs carried off by these huge birds of prey. Crofting is a hard way by which to earn a living and losing lambs to sea eagles, only makes life harder. However, there has to be a fairly large question mark set down about the numbers of live lambs taken that are claimed on the part of some crofters. Having in the past worked with sheep, I can confirm that lambs, especially hill lambs, seem capable of dying of more ailments than any other creatures, especially in the harsh conditions of the West Highlands! And dead or dying lambs are easy pickings for all sorts of predators, including sea eagles.
Historically, raptors a few hundred years ago were far more numerous than they are today. It's true that old folklore does sometimes tell us stories of eagles carrying off babies. However, as far as I can ascertain, these are indeed, tales of the imagination rather than of reality. But real conflict came as landowners began to develop their estates for hunting and shooting. Then hostilities between people and birds of prey really began in earnest. Desperate to offer the best bags, estates employed gamekeepers to control all predators. The carnage that followed, especially during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, saw sea eagles and ospreys exterminated and kites nearly wiped out as British breeding birds. Red kites just hung on in mid-Wales but disappeared completely elsewhere.
Of the mammal predators, while polecats were also exterminated, pine marten just survived but only in a few remote Highland glens. As we well know, as the concept of conservation has taken hold in modern society, there is now a fast growing interest among our population, in protecting and even enlarging existing raptor populations. But there is now also an enthusiasm for what is called 're-wilding' in relation to predatory animals. This too, is bound to engender more heated discussion!
Those same 'old wives tales' that cast the shadow of suspicion on eagles, had, centuries ago, also been etched into the psyche of virtually all Scots in relation to wolves. By the time Mary, Queen of Scots, came to the Scottish throne, wolf numbers in Scotland had escalated. Successive monarchs had vigorously pursued a policy aimed at exterminating this feared and hated culture but apparently without much success. So by the time Mary succeeded more zealous efforts were employed to eliminate them. The final denouement for the wolf in Scotland was to come in the eighteenth century.
Spin the clock forward a few hundred years to the present century and there is as yet a small but nevertheless vociferous core of folk who enthuse about re-introducing wolves to the Scottish landscape, along with lynx and eventually, brown bears. Not surprisingly, there is a rather louder voice - that of the farming community - which equally vigorously opposes such re-introductions. I read that one of the proponents of the re-wilding of wolves claims that wolves would quickly reduce the deer population, now said to be at its highest level for a thousand years. He also claimed that the presence of wolves would also serve to reduce the population of foxes and badgers.
However, bear in mind that even the vilified fox doesn't attack and eat cattle whilst wolves surely would, not to mention adult sheep. Scotland, indeed Britain is a vastly changed landscape from the one in which wolves once dwelt - until around 1745 it is popularly thought. I suspect livestock farming itself would be driven along a route towards extinction, should wolves ever become once more part of our native fauna as some wish.
And isn't it ironic, that while one group of people is calling for such re-introductions, others are complaining that, for instance, there are 'too many' raptors. I recently read a lament about the fate of the noble sport of pigeon racing. The complaint is that high numbers of such pigeons are falling victim to hawks and falcons. These are birds, which can be worth considerable amounts of money. Recently one very special bird was bought by a Chinese businessman for $300,000! This may be an exception although others regularly sell for four figure sums. However, hawks and falcons will naturally quickly learn to exploit such artificial concentrations of food and thus come looking!
In essence the downward trend in the popularity of pigeon racing is therefore being blamed on raptors, which it is suggested should therefore be controlled. There was an interesting and immediate response from a pigeon fancier, who suggested such accusations were based more on anecdotal tradition rather than on hard evidence. He further countered the raptor argument suggesting that the downward trend was instead due to a lack of interest in the sport of pigeon racing among new generations which have little or no enthusiasm for the chores of cleaning, feeding, training and exercising these birds.
The two raptors traditionally seen as threats to the racing pigeon fraternity are sparrowhawks and peregrine falcons. Both fast moving birds, the peregrine perhaps the fastest of them all, reputed to be capable of reaching over 200mph in the stoop. Around eighty years ago peregrines were under official siege for these fast flying falcons are cliff-nesting birds by nature. As you might imagine homing pigeons had become a major means of transmitting messages from war zones across the English Channel during the days of conflict but only too many of them were being nobbled by the aforementioned peregrines as World War Two rumbled on. Thus the War Office launched a culling programme right along Britain's southern and eastern coasts.
When the war ended, normal service was resumed and the remaining peregrines began to recover their numbers, repopulating their former coastal realms. However, they were soon to be hit by another setback when DDT-based sprays were introduced into the agricultural industry. Of course grain crops are a food source for pigeons and so the grains from cereals treated with these chemicals, were consumed by pigeons, which were heavily preyed upon by the falcons. This allowed the lethal chemicals to enter the food chain to the serious detriment of the falcons. The birds' breeding capabilities were subsequently seriously affected. The chemicals were forthwith banned and the decline in peregrine numbers was happily reversed.
In their complaints against raptors, pigeon fanciers have suggested that peregrines are being deliberately introduced to urban areas where most racing pigeons are based. However, in this respect they are probably wrong for whilst peregrines are becoming more evident in our cities, they are merely responding to the increasing populations of feral pigeons in city streets which they see as a welcome and easily caught source of food. This is the reason for a growing urban presence of peregrines.
All of which seems to me to convey very mixed messages. Surely the notions of introducing wolves whilst at the same time culling raptors like peregrines, simply doesn't add up. Indeed, on all counts, these suggestions seem to me to contain nothing but minus factors! We can't and surely shouldn't want to control everything!