Many of us have probably had the suspicion that satellite-tags removed from the many illegally persecuted birds of prey that have disappeared in ‘suspicious circumstances’ over grouse moors were buried in holes on grouse moors, close to where the gamekeeper had shot or poisoned them. Why bother doing anything more than that? The moors are remote, patrolled by fellow keepers, and one bit of peat looks much like any other once a hole has filled back in. Few people will ever be in the right place at the right time to rediscover a buried satellite-tag anyway…
But it turns out that at least one of the criminals targeting birds of prey has been a little more inventive – if still as stupid…
The RSPB has just released news of a satellite-tag discovered in a river wrapped in lead sheeting. That’s right, an environmental toxin has been used to mute the signal from a tag previously fitted to a Golden Eagle that ‘vanished’ somewhere near a grouse moor several years ago and chucked into a river to sink into the same oblivion that some estate owners wish on all birds of prey. If it was a storyline in a novel it would be a nice twist but probably too ‘out there’ for a reader to be convinced it could happen. At least until now…
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.”
RSPB, 25 Sept 2020
The RSPB has produced a video about this disgraceful incident titled “Criminal Cover Up”:
The story has been extensively covered of course, and one reaction printed in an article in The Guardian is especially worth reproducing here. It comes from the laughable Scottish Gamekeepers Association, who says that “the RSPB had no evidence the person who threw the tag in the river was responsible for killing the eagle, or that lead wrapping had been used in this way before“. No, and that’s not what the RSPB is claiming. They do know which bird it was fitted to, they do know that protected Golden Eagles have been ‘disappearing’ for decades, and they know that satellite-tags are twenty-five times more likely to stop working over land managed for grouse shooting than any other land use. Of course without a witness, DNA/fingerprints etc, the RSPB can’t say with any certainty exactly who committed the crime.
They may have justifiable suspicions – or even have heard a whisper or two – but if they had immediate and unfettered access to a tag perhaps they could recover important information. Which is where the second part of what the SGA is reported as saying becomes even more pertinent, because they go on to say this:
“Satellite tags have become heavily weaponised by political campaigners. They elicit high levels of publicity and a person finding one on their land would not want it around, given the scrutiny they would come under,” a spokesman said. “We hope [the police] find the truth of what has happened, for everyone’s sake.”
Unbelievable. Have a pop at the RSPB, say (essentially) that there is no evidence that a gamekeeper was involved, and then go on to explain how a ‘person’ finding a tag on ‘their land’ [note ‘their land’, so we’re not talking about members of the public here but landowners or gamekeepers] wouldn’t report finding the tag (with information relevant to a police enquiry possibly attached to it) to the police – before then expressing a hope that the police will find out the truth! That’s without any help from the people most likely to find a tag/know where the tags are buried of course…‘Wilful blindness’ and grouse shooting? Surely not. Or back in the real world, is it any wonder these clowns have zero credibility outside their own bunkers?
This discovery has – of course – also led to more calls for regulation of the shooting industry. Scottish ministers are due to set out their plans for licensing grouse moors later this year following recommendations from what was claimed was an independent review overseen by Prof Alan Werritty (but which involved two lobbyists from the grouse shooting industry as well) in a further effort to police the industry.
On the face of it, there is little else the RSPB – still hamstrung by the ‘neutrality on shooting’ clause in its Articles – can do other than call for more regulation. While this might not be the right time to beat our particular drum (we’re fundamentally opposed to licencing – see Grouse Moors | Licencing Slaughter), is it not relevant to ask just what more regulation would have achieved in this case? Golden Eagles are fully protected by law already but the crime would still have been committed, the tag would still have been disposed of, and there would still be no witness coming forward.
The only way that the shooting industry will stop illegally killing birds of prey is if the shooting industry is banned from running grouse moors, and Golden Eagles are allowed to live in the uplands once more.