Over 70 birds of prey have been killed or gone missing at grouse shooting estates across Scotland since 2004, according to new satellite tagging evidence from conservationists.

As lairds and gunmen celebrated the start of the grouse shooting season on 12 August, known as “the glorious twelfth”, campaigners blamed sporting estates for illegally poisoning, shooting or persecuting red kites, hen harriers and golden eagles.

An analysis by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Scotland concluded that raptors protected under law had been killed or disappeared in suspicious circumstances around the Cairngorms, in the Angus Glens and in South Lanarkshire – and that the figures were just the “tip of the iceberg”.

Landowners, however, insisted that bird of prey persecution incidents were at “an all-time low”. Populations of eagles and red kites were on the rise, and birds of prey thrived on many grouse moors, they claimed.

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The traditional start of grouse shooting has prompted an angry flurry of accusations and counter accusations. Feelings are running higher than usual because Scottish Ministers have recently agreed to consider growing demands from campaigners to licence the sport.

This could result in estates with a poor record on raptor persecution being refused licences, and the move is being strongly opposed by landowning groups. Birds of prey can take grouse, reducing the number available to be shot for sport and profit.

Ministers are setting up an independent group to review how to make grouse shooting sustainable and legally complaint. This follows an expert study suggesting that 41 out of 131 satellite-tagged golden eagles had been illegally killed or gone missing in suspicious circumstances between 2004 and 2016.

RSPB Scotland has now added data suggesting that 25 tagged red kites and eight tagged hen harriers have also been illegally killed or disappeared in suspicious circumstances between 2009 and 2016. It has produced a map showing that the incidents cluster around shooting estates.

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Map thanks to RSPB Scotland

The pattern of deaths and disappearances is “far from random”, according to RSPB Scotland’s head of investigations, Ian Thomson. “These clusters are almost entirely coincident with land dominated by driven grouse shooting management,” he said.

As with eagles, kites and harriers are suffering in the northern Monadhliath mountains and the Angus Glens. “Harriers and kites have clearly being targeted in other regions, notably but not exclusively upper Strathspey, Strathnairn and the Lowther Hills of South Lanarkshire,” he added.

The tagged birds represented only a “tiny fraction” of the known populations, Thompson pointed out. “How many non-tagged birds are being killed, unseen and never found?”

He argued that raptor persecution was not a historic problem, as some landowners suggested. “Our laws are failing our birds of prey,” he said.

“While we warmly welcome recent announcements by the Scottish government to establish panels to look at the environmental impact of the grouse shooting industry and the potential for regulation, we need urgent action to bear down on this ongoing criminality.”

Thompson described one case in which the tag on a red kite stopped functioning, but then started again two weeks later 80 kilometres away. The bird had been killed by a blow to the back of the head and then seemingly “dumped” by a wind turbine to make it look like the turbine was to blame, he claimed.

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Annie, a satellite-tagged hen harrier, was found shot on a grouse moor in southwest Scotland in April 2015.

The League Against Cruel Sports condemned the glorious twelfth. “This is a day which celebrates the mass slaughter of game birds, not to mention the other species which are killed on an industrial scale,” said Scotland director, Robbie Marsland.

“Dressing this up as something glorious is a poor attempt to justify a blood sport which is responsible for widespread damage including environmental destruction, wildlife persecution and risk of increased flooding.”

Scottish Land and Estates (SLE), which represents landowners, argued that grouse shooting brought much-needed income and employment to rural areas, and was good for wildlife. Animal campaigners made “unfounded assertions”, complained Tim Baynes, the director of SLE’s Scottish Moorland Group.

“The reality, corroborated by official statistics, is that incidents of persecution of birds of prey are at an all-time low and that populations of birds such as eagles and red kites are on the rise. Many grouse moors host good populations of breeding eagles, harriers, merlin, buzzard and short eared owls.”

Grouse moors were also beneficial for ground-nesting birds such as lapwings, curlew and golden plovers, Baynes claimed. “Where persecution does take place, it should be dealt with severely and Scotland has in place some of the most stringent legislation in the world.”

He called for “a less confrontational attitude” to shooting estates. “Rather than always criticising and never acknowledging the benefits of grouse moors, it would be more constructive for all moorland stakeholders to work more closely together to develop ways of protecting species and ensuring their recovery.”

The Scottish Government stressed that it took its responsibility to protect wildlife seriously. “We are setting up an independent group to examine how best to ensure that grouse shooting businesses are sustainable and compliant with the law,” said a spokeswoman.

“Licensing may be one way to achieve this. We will await the recommendations of that group before commenting on the detail of any specific proposals.”

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Photos thanks to RSPB Scotland. A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 13 August 2017.