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Skua and sheep farming

Dave Houston, May 24, 2013

The Chatham Islands are the only place in New Zealand where brown skua and sheep farming overlap. Skua are reputed to attack newborn lambs and on this basis farmers are allowed to shoot skua on their land if damage occurs.

Chatham skua are resident year round and the estimated population is less than 200 birds. The birds breed on offshore (seabird) islands around the Chatham Island group but are regular visitors to the South west of Chatham Island and are present daily on Pitt Island where sheep are farmed.

A recent decline in sightings has raised concerns that a significant mortality event has occurred and that it may be compounded by stock protection activity in the spring.

The extent of any mortality event won't be apparent until skua start to breed, but in the meantime we'd like to start advocating for skua with the local community.

Are there other examples in Chile, Argentina or the Falklands where skua and sheep overlap and if so what problems occur and how have these been handled?

Any information appreciated.


Comments ( 3 )

Rachael Orben

Rachael Orben

Hi Dave,

My impressions from the Falklands is that in the company of other more "menacing" birds of prey, skuas are somewhat down the list as far as being in conflict with sheep farmers. Hopefully you can find some common ground on the Chatham's and gain greater protection for the skuas there. They really are wonderful birds.

Some online summaries of ongoing work in the Falklands:

All the best, Rachael

John Cooper

Subantarctic Skuas occur in small numbers on the main island of Tristan da Cunha where the islanders keep sheep, and they are believed to attack them (although an eye-witness account seems lacking as ever). Because of this they were not completely protected like all the other native seabirds by legislation (although they are on the other three Tristan islands where there are no domestic animals). When I wrote the latest (2006) environmental legislation for Tristan the compromise achieved states:

" a Resident of Tristan da Cunha may without the need for the prior issuing of a permit - ... on the Main Island .... kill or otherwise disturb free-flying sub Antarctic or Tristan Skuas Catharacta antarctica hamiltoni which are known to be, or are reasonably believed to be, killing or attacking domestic animals, including sheep and poultry."

This negotiated compromise means that Tristan Islanders may not legally take/break skua eggs or kills chicks or indeed any adults away from sheep, and also that non-residents (e.g. expats and visitors) may not harm skuas.

It is my guess that the few remaining skuas on the main island are pretty much left alone by the islanders. I doubt they often come across a breeding pair and find its nest so cannot harm fre-flying birds easily anyway (as they will not be carrying shotguns with them). I have never seen a skua on the Settlement Plain where most of the sheep are kept. The semi-feral sheep inland (on the Base, halfway up the mountain) in natural vegetation are less often visited and I have not seen a skua up there either.

E-mail me for more information if desired such as the full title of the 2006 legislation and a contact in the Tristan Conservation Department.

Sjurdur Hammer

Sjurdur Hammer

It may not be helpful, but I am currently working on an article for the farmers union magazine in my homecountry - The Faroe Islands. It's been a long standing issue with great skuas and sheep farming, and they are still legally culled here. On Foula in Shetland, similarly there have been issues regarding this. Albeit in the wrong hemisphere, I assume some of the same issues we've had here, may possibly be valid down on Chatham Island. Bob Furness in his book "the skuas" wrote a chapter on skuas and agriculture. It's worth a read if you can get hold of it. I think the two interest groups (ornithologists and farmers) have such different approaches to nature that it’s easy talk by each other, and it’s an easy mistake to misrepresent each others’ standpoints. I’m not sure with regards to Brown Skuas, but it’s difficult to deny that great skuas do occasionally attack and kill lambs. I’ve seen it myself. Still many ornithologists I’ve talked to remain sceptical, and all farmers seem very convinced that it happens. I have no idea how the farming works down there, but I assume that a lamb lost, results in economic loss for the farmer, and I think it’s important to respect that this is someone’s livelihood after all. I would normally think to myself that a lamb or rather a ewe which is not able to defend its lamb properly probably has other issues like illness, but I’m not aware of any research done on this. Either way, I’ve sometimes successfully argued, that it might not only be a bad thing to have such a “selection pressure” on the sheep population. By my experience farmers are reasonable and most are interested in having as healthy sheep as possible without spending too much money on medicine etc.

Another positive angle would be the amount of marine fertilization a skua colony will bring to their colony area. I know of some research which is currently looking into this in Scotland, and I think this is something that would resonate very well with farmers. I have found out that it has been a tradition to collect the first laid gull eggs (lesser black backed gulls), not only for consumption and control, but also with the intent of stretching their season, so that they would stay longer in the area with the fertilization that this would lead to. I think it’s a neat old idea.

Again, I think it’s well conceivable that skuas will attack sheep especially during the lambing period. I think a good compromise has been done on Foula, Shetland, where it has been advised that skuas that might get a habit of attacking sheep – “rouge pairs”, could be culled. This would offcourse mean that someone would have to know which pair it may have been, either from direct observation or from the collection of pellets. I don’t know if this is viable. But it’s not likely that a “thinning out” of the entire colony would have the farmer’s desired effect. The feeding lifestyle of great skuas in the UK has been found to be density dependent with greater populations adopting a fish stealing/scavenging lifestyle and smaller populations being more predatory. I don’t know anything about brown skuas, so not sure if this is comparable at all.

So I don’t know if any of this is applicable to your situation, but perhaps a few ideas to consider, and I’d appreciate very much to hear back regarding your work.