Evidence that a satellite tag was deliberately removed from a golden eagle and hidden has been highlighted by wildlife campaigners.
A tag from an eagle that disappeared in 2016 has been discovered in the River Braan, near Dunkeld, in Perthshire. It was wrapped in lead sheeting, with its antennae and harness cut.
According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Scotland the find shows the lengths that criminals will go to “cover up” the illegal killing of birds of prey and “to present driven grouse shooting as a clean industry”.
The Scottish Gamekeepers Association, however, accused RSPB of not being able to prove what had happened. Campaigners had “weaponised” tags, the association said.
The lead-wrapped tag was spotted by a walker and his son at a beauty spot by the Rumbling Bridge over the River Braan on 21 May. A contact address and serial number were still visible, enabling the tag to be identified by the RSPB and the police.
It had been worn by a two-year-old golden eagle that disappeared within days of arriving at Strathbraan. The tag ceased functioning on 1 May 2016, leading RSPB to suspect that the bird had been killed and the tag destroyed.
The disappearance was reported to the police, but searches at the time were unable to find any trace of the tag or the eagle. The tag is still undergoing forensic examination by the police.
According to RSPB Scotland’s head of investigations, Ian Thomson, the discovery of the tag revealed what had happened. “As is the case with every suspicious satellite tagged raptor disappearance on a grouse moor, spurious alternative theories as to what may have happened to the bird and tag were suggested,” he said.
“However, now we know the truth. This young eagle was killed illegally. The tag was clearly removed from the bird, its antenna was cut off, and the tag was then wrapped in a piece of lead sheeting. The package was then cast into the river.”
He added: “This discovery gives unequivocal proof not only of what is happening to these birds, but also the lengths to which the criminals involved in the killing of our raptors will go to dispose of evidence and evade justice.’
“It is not unreasonable to conclude that the vast majority of other birds of prey and their tags that have disappeared on Scotland’s grouse moors have suffered similar fates.”
Thompson pointed out that eight satellite tagged eagles had “suddenly and suspiciously” disappeared in the same grouse moor area in central Perthshire. In the last 15 year as many as 50 satellite tagged golden eagles had disappeared in Scotland, he said.
The Strathbraan golden eagle was tagged in 2014 by RSPB Scotland’s head of species and land management, Duncan Orr-Ewing, in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. The discovery of its tag was “distressing”, he said.
He added: “More disappearances of tagged birds this year, as well as shooting and poisoning cases, destroy any pretence that the grouse shooting industry is able to self-regulate, even during a national pandemic.
“It is abundantly clear that the only way to stop this culturally ingrained and organised criminality against Scotland’s protected raptors is through robust, and immediate, regulation.”
The Scottish Gamekeepers Association stressed the need to await the results of the police investigation. “If RSPB’s interpretation of this is what has actually happened – which they do not have proof of – then of course we would share that concern,” said an association spokesperson.
“However, it is one of many possible interpretations and until any forensic process is concluded it would be unwise of us to comment further or add to speculation on who may have covered up a tag or what their interests were in doing so.”
The spokesperson added: “Satellite tags have become heavily weaponised by political campaigners. They elicit high levels of publicity and a person finding one on their land would not want it around, given the scrutiny they would come under.
“We will await to see what the police can uncover from the evidence. We hope they find the truth of what has happened, for everyone’s sake.”
Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners, also criticised RSPB Scotland. “Where there is an indication that a wildlife crime may have been committed, we fully support a thorough police investigation and any perpetrator being brought to justice,” said the group’s chair, Mark Tennant.
“However, what must be questioned is the blatant use of alleged incidents in pursuit of a long held political objective of licensing grouse shooting. It is more than four years since this bird disappeared and four months since the satellite tag is claimed to have been discovered.”
Tennant called for the control of satellite tags to be placed in the hands of an independent organisation and for the data to be shared publicly in real time. “The golden eagle population in Scotland is thriving, including on grouse moors where eagles pose little problem to land management activities,” he added.
“Tags will continue to be used in future years but as the eagle population hopefully continues to grow then it is correct that everyone has confidence in their use and how that data is controlled transparently.”
A Police Scotland spokesperson said: “Officers carried out an investigation after a tag was found in the River Brann at Rumbling Bridge near to Dunkeld. Anyone who knows how the tag came to be there, should contact Police Scotland on 101.”
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This story was updated at 12.15 on 25 September 2020 to add comments from Scottish Land and Estates, and at 18.25 on 29 September 2020 to add comments by Police Scotland. Cover photo thanks to RSPB Scotland.