RSPB Scotland's Head of Investigations Ian Thomson discusses today's news of a white-tailed eagle that has been illegally killed on a grouse moor in the Strathdon area of Aberdeenshire.

White-tailed eagle illegally killed in the Strathdon area of Aberdeenshire

Today's appalling news that a white-tailed eagle has been illegally killed on a grouse moor in the Strathdon area of Aberdeenshire won’t come as a particular surprise to any of us who have been involved in the conservation of Scotland's birds of prey over the last 15 or so years. It was killed in early April, during the early days of strict Covid-19 lockdown when our countryside was, in effect, closed to all but local people and those still working in the countryside.

This young eagle is the latest victim of a widespread, relentless and systematic campaign of shameful persecution of raptors in this area, dominated by intensive driven grouse moor management, dating back  over many years. Recent confirmed crimes here have included the shooting of a goshawk, the targeted destruction of a goshawk nest in a nearby publicly-owned forestry plantation; and the disappearance of two satellite tagged hen harriers, including one in April this year.

The grouse moors of Upper Donside have perhaps gained most notoriety, however, for multiple sudden suspicious disappearances of satellite tagged golden eagles; in September 2011, February 2012, May 2013 and March 2017. In April 2014, the first young white-tailed eagle to fledge from a nest in the east of Scotland in one hundred years also suddenly disappeared here. A satellite-tagged golden eagle was found poisoned in Glenbuchat in 2011. The national golden eagle survey 2015 showed that less than a third of known golden eagle home ranges in the eastern Cairngorms were occupied despite the fact that this area should be the most productive for this species in Scotland given the widespread availability of red grouse and mountain hare prey. Illegal killing was identified as the main threat.   

We all hoped the dark days of poisoned raptor cases were fading into the past. The use of such chemicals is not just illegal, it is pre-meditated and indiscriminate – whatever the intentions of the criminal who places out a bait. So, the news we received in the last few days that this young white-tailed eagle had been the victim of poisoning by an illegal pesticide is both exceedingly depressing and deeply worrying. It is perhaps all the more so because this bird was of a new generation of white-tailed eagles originating from the East of Scotland re-introduction supported by Scottish Government that began in 2007.

This bird fledged from the first successful nest of a white-tailed eagle that itself was wild-bred, and marked a major step forward in the reestablishment of this magnificent species in the east of the country.

poisoned white tailed eagle on ground

Image Credit: Police Scotland

One wonders how many other victims of this criminal activity have escaped detection, bearing in mind that satellite-tagged birds represent a tiny minority of the total population.

We only knew it had died because he was fitted with a satellite transmitter which had been allowing us to follow the bird’s movements remotely as it explored the Highlands of Scotland for the first time.

As soon as its transmitter data made it clear that it had stopped moving, we notified Police Scotland and forwarded them the data, for their independent scrutiny, as we do in all such cases where a bird is suspected of being a possible victim of crime. Police officers attended the location very quickly and confirmed that the bird was indeed lying dead. They recovered the eagle’s body and submitted it for independent post-mortem.

Last week, Police Scotland informed us of the results, confirming that this eagle had been illegally poisoned. It was only a year old.

There have been very few cases of illegal poisoning of birds of prey in Scotland over the last few years undoubtedly helped by both the vicarious liability provisions enacted by the Scottish Government back in 2012 but also the increasing use of satellite technology to allow the study of the movements of birds of prey by ecologists, identifying areas of key importance for their feeding, roosting and breeding as well as examining their interactions with renewable energy schemes. We are very much aware though that wildlife criminals intent on continuing their illegal activities have moved to using less detectable methods of killing of birds of prey.

Peer-reviewed analysis of satellite-tag data has highlighted that a significant proportion of young tagged golden eagles and hen harriers, whose tags have been functioning perfectly, are disappearing almost exclusively on land being managed for driven grouse shooting. Indeed, the Scottish Government-commissioned review of the fates of satellite tagged golden eagles identified upper Donside as a hotspot for suspicious disappearances of these birds.

It is wholly predictable that those who continually question the use of satellite-tags and try to deny the unequivocal pattern of disappearances of birds carrying this military-grade technology, occurring almost exclusively on grouse moors, are representatives of, or apologists for, the driven grouse shooting industry.

The poisoning of this young white-tailed eagle provides compelling, undeniable evidence for what is happening to these birds. The motives of those who repeatedly issue misleading statements to the media or attempt to smear the reputations of individuals or organisations involved in tagging projects are laid bare by such appalling cases.

We now need strong and meaningful deterrents to such abhorrent crimes. The independent Grouse Moor Management Review Group, published in 2019, has recommended licensing of driven grouse shooting. We call on the Scottish Government for licensing to implemented without delay,  and with the facility for public authorities to remove licences for grouse moors to operate where there is evidence of wildlife crimes occurring.