Once persecuted to extinction, white-tailed eagles are making a comeback in Scotland, following several reintroduction projects dating back over 40 years. And recently, some young white-tailed eagles have also been released in the south of England.  

These huge, majestic birds are protected by law. However the threat of illegal killing still looms large.

In July this year (2019) two young white-tailed eagles, fitted, under licence, with lightweight satellite tags to shed light on their movements, unexpectedly disappeared. Both birds’ final transmissions showed them to be over Scottish grouse moors.

One, a male tagged as a chick at a nest in in Fife in 2016, last transmitted on 22 July near Banchory in Aberdeenshire. The other bird fledged from an Inverness-shire nest just last year, disappearing near Tomatin in the northern Monadhliaths, coincidentally also on 22 July. This is also an area managed for driven grouse shooting and has a history of raptor persecution and suspicious disappearances.

White tailed eagles are the UK’s largest bird of prey with a wingspan of up to 8ft. They were a common sight across Scotland during the 19th century until persecution drove them to extinction: the last bird was shot in Shetland in 1918.

These two eagles were the first generation of chicks from breeding pairs in the East of Scotland, re-introduced as part of a partnership project between RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry Commission Scotland.

The birds’ tags were being monitored by RSPB Scotland staff and were functioning as expected before they suddenly stopped transmitting. As usual, the National Wildlife Crime Unit and Police Scotland were immediately notified and provided with the data to allow them to make an independent assessment of what had happened.

Searches were carried out by the police at the birds’ last-known locations but neither the birds or their transmitters were found, and they have not been seen or heard from since.

Ian Thomson, RSPB Scotland’s Head of Investigations, said: “Yet again, rare, protected birds of prey have disappeared in highly suspicious circumstances, when their tags had been functioning as expected, and they were last recorded on grouse moors. If a tagged bird dies naturally, the tag will continue transmitting, allowing us to find the bird and submit it for post moretem examination. However, in many cases, birds and their tags are simply disappearing, almost exclusively in areas of the country managed for driven grouse shooting. Given how reliable these tags are, we can be pretty certain that these birds have been killed and their tags destroyed.

“In 1999, Donald Dewar, Scotland’s first Minister, described raptor persecution as a ‘national disgrace’. But 20 years on, birds like eagles and hen harriers continue to vanish on grouse moors. It is long overdue that the Scottish Government removed this stain from our nation’s reputation and introduced robust regulation of an unsustainable industry that is clearly out of control.”

The Scottish Government commissioned a review of the fates of satellite tagged eagles as a result of numerous previous suspicious disappearances of birds in these areas. The subsequent independently peer-reviewed report, Analyses of the fates of satellite tracked golden eagles in Scotland, provided unequivocal and damning evidence of the link between the highly suspicious disappearance of satellite-tagged raptors and criminal activity associated with grouse moor management.

The RSPB has long advocated for driven grouse moors to be subject to robust regulation, and awaits the imminent publication of the Scottish Government’s review of grouse moor management. At the RSPB’s recent AGM, the Chair of Council, Kevin Cox, announced an intention to review the RSPB’s policy on gamebird shooting.

There is growing concern about the environmental impact (including for carbon, water and biodiversity) of intensive forms of game bird shooting and associated land management practices. This includes both driven grouse moor management (which involves shooting our native red grouse) and largescale release of non-native game birds. Environmental concerns include the ongoing and systematic illegal persecution of birds of prey such as hen harriers on some sporting estates.”

Read the full statement: https://community.rspb.org.uk/ourwork/b/martinharper/posts/announcement-of-review-of-rspb-policy-on-gamebird-shooting