Shocking discovery reveals lengths raptor killers will go to to conceal crimes

Stephen Magee

Friday 25 September 2020

Recovered satellite tag provides answer to what happens when birds of prey ‘disappear’ on Scotland’s grouse moors

A satellite tag removed from a ‘disappeared’ golden eagle has been recovered from a Highland river. 

The discovery sheds new light on the activities that criminals will go to in a bid to cover up the illegal killing of protected birds of prey. 

In 2016 the bird’s tag stopped transmitting suddenly on a grouse moor in Perthshire and despite searches by Police and RSPB Scotland, it was never traced. 

Now the tag has been found – wrapped in heavy lead sheeting and disposed of at a popular beauty spot just a few miles from the last known location of the bird. 

The recovered tag is further evidence in just how far criminals who routinely kill birds of prey are going to in a bid to cover their tracks and to present driven grouse shooting as a clean industry. 

The object was spotted by a walker and his son on the banks of the River Braan near Dunkeld in Perthshire on 21st May.  

On closer examination, they found the tag wrapped in a piece of lead sheeting. The tag bore a label bearing contact details and a serial number, subsequently allowing the police and RSPB to jointly attend recover and identify the object.  

Police Scotland have since held the tag for several months to conduct forensic analysis, which is ongoing.  

After fledging from its nest, this young eagle had remained on its parents’ territory until November 2014. Over the following 18 months, it explored Scotland's uplands before it moved into Strathbraan. Within a few days of arriving here, on 1st May 2016 his tag, that had been functioning exactly as would have expected, suddenly and inexplicably stopped. It was suspected that the bird had been killed, and the tag destroyed. 

As with all such cases, this suspicious disappearance was reported to the police. A search of the land around the bird’s last known location on a remote hill took place and the disappearance was discussed with local land managers. No evidence of what had happened to the bird was uncovered.  

Ian Thomson, RSPB Scotland’s Head of Investigations said: “As is the case in virtually every raptor persecution investigation, nobody seemed to know anything and, 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. 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, presumably because the perpetrator thought this would stop it transmitting. The package was then cast into the river, never to be seen again. Or so they thought. 

“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.” 

Satellite-tags are used by biological researchers throughout the world to track the movements of animals and birds, from vultures to elephants, and have a proven high reliability. In the UK, their use on birds is strictly regulated by the British Trust for Ornithology and the Government’s statutory nature conservation agencies, with individual projects and taggers requiring demonstrable training and experience and only then under specific licences. 

Duncan Orr-Ewing, a member of the Central Scotland Raptor Study Group and RSPB Scotland’s Head of Species and Land Management, said: “The number of satellite tags fitted to raptors, functioning exactly as expected, only to have stopped suddenly on a grouse moor, is an issue of increasing public concern, as evidenced by the Scottish Government commissioning of a review of the fates of satellite-tagged golden eagles, published three years ago.” 

“It has long been suspected that tags are routinely destroyed by wildlife criminals in a deliberate attempt to conceal evidence. There is no other reasonable explanation as to why this tag has ended up in the river where it was found, wrapped in metal, and with the harness and antenna cut. For me this incident is doubly distressing as it is a bird that I tagged with a colleague in 2014, and it originates from a nest site in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park where there has been a long history of local community protection from egg collectors.    

“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. We call upon the Scottish Government to prioritise this as their response to the Werritty Review. 

Watch our video on the recovery of the tag here.

Tagged with: Country: Scotland Country: Scotland Topic: Birds Topic: Golden eagle Topic: Scotland Topic: Scotland Topic: Birds of prey