Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Eagle?
Angus MacNeil’s harmful campaign against Scotland’s white-tailed eagles
By Samuel Sandor
23rd April 2022
Two weeks ago, Angus MacNeil, MSP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, or the Outer Hebrides, tweeted an image of two dead lambs with the caption ‘ugly work of the Lamb Eagle - commonly known as the Sea Eagle - on healthy 4 day old lambs today’. They were his neighbour’s lambs, and from the image one could tell that the ‘lamb eagle’ in question had eaten them.
This struck me. Over the past two weeks, I have grown more and more concerned with the attitude expressed here, as well as with his subsequent call for a cull of white-tailed sea eagles.
The language used by MacNeil here is inflammatory and backward to an almost absurd degree, with ‘ugly work’ seeming to suggest some crime has been perpetrated, a moral transgression, even. The fact is, however, that eagles have no moral compass, and nor do lambs, for that matter. These lambs deserve life no more than the eagles do. Indeed, the paradoxical nature of MacNeil’s outcry is that these lambs would have been slaughtered for meat within eight months at the most.
Indeed, the only reason these sheep are such easy prey for eagles is because of human agricultural practices. Due to the nature of sheep farming, rows of lambs are all conveniently located in one field, without anywhere to run or hide, so that eagles can pick them off without difficulty.
Nevertheless, the ultimate irony of MacNeil’s proposed cull is that it would not be the second time eagles were driven out of Scotland. White-tailed eagles were hunted to extinction in Scotland before 1918. In 1975, eagles were reintroduced to Scotland, and now populate regions ranging from Orkney to the northwest Highlands and even Fife. Still, the Scottish Wildlife Trust has said that the species’ numbers remain in the process of recovering, with their current population estimated at around 150.
Humans have always toyed with their environment in wrongful and contradictory ways. To destroy Scotland’s eagle population, build it back up again by importing them from Scandinavia, and then turn and try to kill them once more is a truly malevolent manifestation of this. Eirini Vryza, Deputy Editor of The Wynd, put this problem succinctly in her article on mink culling, arguing that ‘human practices have brought about this state of crisis, and […] humans have then leant on animals to solve it’. The extinction of eagles was unmistakably our fault, and now the fact that lambs are being attacked is equally as clearly our fault.
In spite of this, these issues are also, in many ways, not entirely our fault. Frogs eat flies. Robins eat worms. Lambs eat grass. Eagles eat lambs. Nature has its conflicts, but it always reaches a balance when humans don’t interfere too much with its delicate mechanisms. The only reason any of these predatory relationships is bothersome to Angus MacNeil, and humanity as a whole, is because we too want to eat lambs. It is a shame MacNeil cannot see the hypocrisy here.
If the eagle in question’s lunch was ‘ugly work’, so too are the lunches and dinners of the millions of Britons who consumed the 11.67 lambs we slaughtered last year. So too are we psychopaths if MacNeil is correct in referring to white-tailed sea eagles as the ‘psychopaths of the sky’ in a radio interview.
MacNeil later tweeted a photo of his own lambs with the following description: ‘Wee Tiny Tim here having avoided death's door with a night at the fireside, now loving life with his bro. - and wants to avoid being sea eagle food as is now happening to some wee lambs.’ Once again, this transparently manipulative tweet is duplicitous to the point of ludicrousness. ‘Wee Tiny Tim’ will be Sunday roast in not too long, or ‘wintering in the household freezer’ as MacNeil put it in another interview.
To clear up, this article is not attempting to advocate for vegetarianism or veganism, that is a separate conversation. However, it is essential to point out the contradictions MacNeil’s self-righteous claims are infused with. At its root, the disgruntled MP is not concerned with ‘Wee Tiny Tim’. Despite the way MacNeil has framed the issue on his Twitter, he is much more concerned with the profit of lamb farms. This is understandable. With the low fertility soil of his area and the unpredictability of lambing, it must be frustrating to have eagles predate your livestock.
Nonetheless, MacNeil’s response to this hardship has been wrong in two ways. First, it is wrong to capitalise on the emotional vulnerabilities of the public to try and personally benefit, and second, it is wrong to suggest that a brute force solution like killing all eagles is viable or morally permissible.
A better response to the original incident would have been transparency; it ought to have been made clear from the outset that the eagle’s attack had hurt profits and that that was the issue. This kind of open admission of his justification for the proposed cull would have allowed people to judge for themselves what they’d like to be done. What do they value more, they could ask themselves, local economic growth or local natural beauty?
Even this seems problematic, though. This way of thinking, where we weigh up monetary cost against environmental benefit, may sometimes get things done, but it is also often rather inhuman. “If 1 eagle kills on average 3 lambs in its lifetime, and a lamb sells for £100, then every eagle we leave alive costs us £300” seems a rather heavy-handed way of looking after our local environments and indeed our local economies.
And yet, even if you do subscribe to this form of utilitarian, cull-by-numbers thinking, the words of the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s director of conservation, Sarah Robinson, will put you at ease. "The reintroduction of white-tailed eagles has created significant economic benefits through nature tourism”, she has said. Although we shouldn’t have to make these kinds of comparative calculations, it seems that even in this case, MacNeil would struggle to argue that the local economy would benefit from an eagle cull.
Fortunately, NatureScot, the public organisation looking after Scotland's natural environment, has seen sense and confirmed that a cull is not under consideration.
Undeniably, we should be glad to hear this, but we should not dust our hands off and move on. We must adapt our attitudes. No animal’s eating habits are ‘ugly’ or ‘wrong’, and certainly no animal is a ‘psychopath’. Animals may do things which humans do not like, and other animals may offer things which humans want, but they ultimately cannot do right or wrong. It is us, humanity, which either helps or harms nature and its inhabitants. We are responsible for looking after what’s around us because we are moral creatures. Animals are not, and so they are free to act as they please, even if ‘Wee Tiny Tim’ suffers as a result.