When lambing season is underway in South Australia, a predator from the sky looks likely to add to the challenges facing sheep farmers.
Wedge-tailed eagles, an Australian native bird and protected species, are swooping to prey on young lambs.
Farmers say the eagles are smart and determined.
“I watched a pair of eagles separate a ewe from one of her twins,” said Twitter user Ellen.
“She was protecting one lamb while trying to work out how to rescue the other.
“It was mesmerising and horrifying to watch.
“I ended up intervening so the ewe could get her lambs safely to the shelter of the creek.”
Sheep farmers told ABC Radio Regional Drive what had surprised and disturbed them the most was the “wedgies” were not just targeting sick or weak lambs.
Healthy young lambs were also being attacked.
Ian Vanderbrook, a crop and livestock producer on the Upper Eyre Peninsula, told ABC’s Narelle Graham it was a surprise for him.
“I went into a paddock, where I had some lambs that were a week or so old. They were up on the hill enjoying the sun. When I came back 15 minutes later, there was a wedge-tailed eagle in the same spot. The eagle had killed both of them.”
Mr Vanderbrook said the eagle had eaten some of each of the lambs.
Other farmers said they had seen eagles land on a healthy lamb and crush its skull with their talons.
Chad Crittle, a senior keeper of birds at Adelaide Zoo, says it could be a sign of a lack of other food sources for wedge-tailed eagles.
“Australia is the only major continent on the planet without vultures,” he said.
“It means we haven’t got any defined scavengers. Australia has birds that will scavenge and hunt; wedge-tailed eagles are a great example of that.
“They’re a predominant scavenger, but when times are tough, they will hunt.”
Mr Crittle said it was common for eagles to hunt in pairs, with their nesting partner.
He also said populations of wedge-tailed eagles were declining.
“There aren’t as many wedgies as you might think. They’re in dire straits in some parts of Australia, but the solution to living near eagles is tricky.”
Mr Crittle said livestock guardians might help deter the birds, but were unlikely to prevent eagles from taking some farm animals.
He said there was a “huge” burden on wedge-tailed eagles to provide enough food to raise a chick, and it was possible that less roadkill due to a decrease in people’s movements during the pandemic could be contributing.
“The effect of the pandemic is a variable that will be looked at for its impact on a lot of animal species,” Mr Crittle said.
“Have we seen a reduction in roadkill? I don’t know the answer to that, but there is a chance that there’s less food around in that sense too.”
Mr Crittle said the majority of a wedge-tailed eagle’s diet was rabbit, followed by roadkill.
He said the wedgies played a critical role in keeping the environment free from diseases found in animal carcasses.
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