Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations, RSPB Scotland tells us about a shocking discovery which reveals lengths raptor killers will go to to conceal crimes.

Strathbraan is undoubtedly a beautiful and rugged part of Highland Perthshire. But it is an area that holds a dark secret, involving the criminal destruction of some of our most iconic wildlife and the deliberate disposal of evidence to help the perpetrators evade justice.

It is an area where driven grouse shooting management dominates the uplands and in recent years has become notorious for raptor persecution – particularly the repeated disappearances of satellite tagged birds of prey.

Over the last 2 years there was widespread publicity about the sudden cessation in data transmission of previously reliable tags fitted to 3 golden eagles, ‘Tom’, ‘Adam’ and ‘Charlie’ - tagged as part of an ongoing project involving Raptor Persecution UK and naturalist Chris Packham - all of which disappeared in Strathbraan over the last 18 months. None of these birds has been seen or their transmitters heard from again.

Satellite tagging is, quite rightly, a highly regulated activity that only a handful of trained, experienced and licensed people in Scotland are permitted to carry out. Tagging projects themselves are strictly controlled and require approval by the British Trust for Ornithology and the government’s statutory nature conservation agencies. Those involved in tagging Scotland’s birds of prey, many of whom have had long involvements in raptor conservation, take great care for every bird’s welfare when fitting these tags.

In cases such as those above, where there is suspicion as to the fate of any tagged bird, , the tag data is routinely passed  to the police for their independent scrutiny and interpretation.

But this blog is not about those disappearances, shocking though these cases were. It is about another young satellite-tagged golden eagle that vanished in identical circumstances, in the same area on 1st May 2016.

Young golden eagle with tag

Young eagle in the nest, fitted with satellite tag #129104

This bird had been fitted with a satellite tag (number #129014) as a chick in a nest in Stirlingshire, by members of the Central Scotland Raptor Study Group in the summer of 2014.  The young eagle fledged from the nest just a few weeks later and it thrived, remaining on its parents’ territory until November 2014. Then, over the following 18 months, it explored Scotland's uplands before it eventually moved into Strathbraan. Within a few days, his tag, that had been functioning exactly as expected, suddenly and inexplicably stopped.

As usual, the disappearance was reported to the police. A search of the land around the bird’s last known location took place and local land managers were spoken to. But, as is the case in virtually every raptor persecution investigation, nobody seemed to know anything and, as is the case with every satellite tagged raptor disappearance, spurious alternative theories as to what may have happened to the bird and tag were suggested.

Meantime, another satellite-tagged golden eagle disappeared, just a few miles away, a few weeks later. Neither bird nor their tags were seen or heard from again, just like those three recent birds, and just like three others that had disappeared in the area prior to #129014. In fact, just like many, many more eagles that had disappeared on Scotland’s grouse moors over the previous years, prompting growing public concern as to what was happening to our protected wildlife.

Eagle 129014 was included in the Scottish Government-commissioned analyses of the fates of satellite tagged Golden Eagles, published in May 2017. That review unequivocally concluded that almost a third of young tagged eagles were suddenly disappearing, in highly suspicious circumstances, presumed illegally killed, almost exclusively in areas managed for driven grouse shooting. The findings were no surprise and confirmed our grave concerns as to what was happening to these birds.

In spite of that damning report, and the resultant condemnation of those killing these birds, it did nothing to stop the continued suspicious disappearance of tagged eagles or other raptor species on or near Scotland’s grouse moors.

While we’ve already mentioned the more recent disappearances of eagles Tom, Charlie and Adam in Starthbraan, there was also the case of ’Fred’, last recorded alive on the fringes of a grouse moor in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh, in January 2018. A few days after his tag suddenly stopped transmitting location information, the tag briefly “woke up” showing it was now located in the sea offshore from St. Andrews. While no-one knows exactly how it ended up there, that case further heightened suspicions that concerted efforts were being made to dispose of killed birds and their tags.

An illegally killed golden eagle, dumped near a road

This tagged golden eagle was illegally trapped in Angus, then dumped near a road 15km away

This was not the first time this had happened – an eagle satellite tag that had clearly been cut off a bird, then stabbed with a sharp implement, was recovered from an Angus grouse moor in March 2012. A few weeks later, in the same glen, another tagged golden eagle was illegally trapped, breaking both its legs. That bird’s tag data showed that it then moved 15 miles, in total darkness, to a location on Deeside in Aberdeenshire, close to a roadside. It was readily apparent that this bird had been removed from the scene of the crime, then dumped, still alive, to die in agony over the course of the following few days, because the person who had trapped him wanted to evade justice. The denials of that appalling incident, by those same apologists who to this day decry tagging and the pattern of disappearances it has shown, says a great deal about how much they really care about eagles and their welfare.

Looking down into a gorge

The gorge at Rumbling Bridge, Perthshire

Fast forward to 2020.

A few miles downstream from where eagle #129014 disappeared in the spring of 2016, is Rumbling Bridge, a popular viewpoint near the town of Dunkeld, where the River Braan runs through a narrow, deep gorge.

On 21st May this year, after the prolonged period of dry sunny weather caused the river to run low, a man walking with his young son along the bank downstream from the gorge spotted something strange lying among the rocks, presumably washed onto the bank some time when the river was in spate.

It was a package wrapped like a parcel, in thick lead sheeting. Inside the package, was an object that he didn’t recognise, but it had contact details on it. He emailed the contact, and that message was forwarded to me. The following day, I met up with a local police officer and the finder, who took us to the location and showed us his discovery.

The object wrapped inside the lead sheeting was a satellite tag, serial number #129014.

Tag wrapped in lead sheetingDismantled tag inside the lead sheeting

The lead package containing satellite-tag #129014

The tag’s Teflon harness had clearly been cut through to remove it from the eagle. The tag antenna had been snipped off, and then the tag had been wrapped in the piece of lead sheeting, presumably because the perpetrator was told by others with experience in disposing of killed tagged raptors that this was how to stop a tag from transmitting to a satellite network. The package was then cast into the river, never to be seen again. Or so they thought.

What about the eagle that carried tag #129014? Killed and disposed of, undoubtedly. How and by whom, we don’t know. Perhaps ongoing forensic analysis of the tag will reveal that.

The number of satellite tags fitted to raptors, that have been functioning exactly as expected, only to have stopped suddenly on a grouse moor, with no evidence of tag malfunction is an issue of increasing public concern. This case, however, gives unequivocal proof not only of what is happening to these birds, but also the lengths the criminals involved in the killing of our raptors will go to dispose of evidence and evade justice. Only they will know how many other bodies have been buried or burnt or how many tags have been dumped in Scotland's rivers, lochs or in the North Sea.

What is clear, however, is that this is systematic, organised crime, the coordinated slaughter of some of our most magnificent birds, the level of which only becomes clear as a result of raptor population survey and analysis; a hen harrier population in sharp decline with persecution the key driver; golden eagle and red kite populations constrained by persecution in the Eastern Highlands; peregrines disappearing from the uplands.

The overwhelming majority of those killing our birds of prey have been getting away with it, disposing of evidence, denying responsibility and finding cover from sympathisers and apologists in the shooting community. The grouse shooting industry has not only totally failed to stop the criminality but has instead focussed on attacks and smears against individuals or organisations who have exposed these incidents or have simply campaigned for better protection for our wildlife. No doubt their PR machine will go into overdrive in the coming days, trying to come up with a conspiracy theory to explain away the fate of the eagle who wore tag #129014.

White-tailed eagle which was found poisoned

Poisoned White-tailed Eagle, Strathdon, Aberdeenshire, April 2020 (Picture: Police Scotland)

Events in 2020 – including tagged hen harriers disappearing, a short-eared owl shot by a masked criminal who drove off on a quad bike, and a poisoned white-tailed eagle, all on grouse moors, prove that despite their denials and misinformation, there is no let-up in these crimes.

So, for the sake of eagles Adam, Charlie, Tom, Fred, #129014 and innumerable other unnamed, unknown, untagged hen harriers, goshawks, peregrines, eagles, kites and other birds of prey that we as a country have been unable to protect from being the shot, poisoned or trapped as victims of this criminality, we ask that the Scottish Government introduce robust regulation of the grouse shooting industry without further delay. It’s time this killing was stopped.