Today (31 May 2017) the Scottish Government published a long-awaited report on the role of satellite tagging technology in monitoring the movements of birds of prey – and it’s a watershed moment in the battle against raptor persecution.

The report concluded that: ‘satellite tagging of young golden eagles has revealed that many young birds have probably been illegally killed in some parts of Scotland between 2004 and 2016: largely in the central and eastern Highlands.’

The report was commissioned in August 2016 after eight satellite-tagged golden eagles went missing in the Monadhliath mountains, Scotland. It was carried out by independent scientists and subsequently peer-reviewed, and submitted it to Scottish Natural Heritage.

It revealed that, of the 131 young eagles tracked over 12 years, a third (41) have disappeared – presumably died – under suspicious circumstances significantly connected with contemporaneous records of illegal persecution. These disappearances occurred mainly in six areas of the Highlands, and the majority of cases were over land intensively managed for driven grouse shooting.

The report found no link between the fitting of tags and the disappearance of the birds wearing them, ruling out any connection with wind turbines and undermining suggestions that the failure of the tags (due to loss of signal or breakage) was responsible for the tagged birds disappearing.

In response to the report, Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham has drawn up new measures designed to give added protection to birds of prey and the wider Scottish environment. These include:

• Set up an independently-led group to look at the environmental impact of grouse moor management practices such as muirburn, the use of medicated grit and mountain hare culls, and to recommend options for regulation including licensing and other measures which could be put in place without new primary legislation 
• Immediately review all available legal measures which could be used to target geographical areas of concern
• Increase resources for the detection and investigation of wildlife crime and work with Police Scotland to pilot the use of special constables in the Cairngorms National Park
• Rule out giving the Scottish SPCA more investigative powers, in light of legal advice
• Examine how best to protect the valuable role of gamekeepers in rural Scotland
• Commission research into the costs and benefits of large shooting estates to Scotland’s economy and biodiversity

Ms Cunningham said: “The findings of this research are deeply concerning and will give rise to legitimate concerns that high numbers of golden eagles, and other birds of prey, continue to be killed in Scotland each year. There is every reason to believe that similar levels of persecution affect untagged golden eagles, as well as those we are able to track via satellite tags.” 

Director of RSPB Scotland, Anne McCall, said: “We commend the authors of this report for producing a comprehensive, robust and forensic examination of the issues regarding the disappearance of satellite-tagged golden eagles in Scotland. By commissioning such a review the Cabinet Secretary and the Scottish Government have shown decisive leadership, and provided a clear, factual, if very worrying picture, of the scale of illegal persecution in Scotland.

"The conclusions reached by the review support the concerns that RSPB Scotland has been expressing for decades: that Scotland’s protected birds of prey continue to be illegally and systematically killed, in significant numbers, and primarily in areas where intensive grouse moor management dominates the landscape.

“These announcements are a clear notice of intent from the Scottish Government that it is prepared to take significant steps to target those areas that are destroying our natural heritage and are a stain on our country’s reputation.”

RSPB Scotland’s Head of Investigations, Ian Thomson, said: "When you add to this the disappearances of satellite-tagged white tailed eagles, red kites, goshawks, peregrines and hen harriers, not included this review, and consider that satellite-tagged birds form a very small proportion of the populations of these species, the overall numbers of eagles and other protected raptors that are actually being killed must be staggering.

“It is long overdue that representatives of the shooting industry stood up and publicly acknowledged the level of crime that is taking place. This report completely bankrupts the myth that raptor persecution is in long term decline and we hope that its publication and today’s announcements represents a watershed moment for the future conservation of our birds of prey.”