Wildlife detectives are investigating the suspected poisoning of three of Britain's rarest bird of prey, the golden eagle. The bodies of the birds were all found in the last week on the 3,000 hectare Skibo estate in the Scottish Highlands.
Officers from the Northern Constabulary are working alongside the RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the National Wildlife Crime Unit to establish what caused the deaths. The birds have been sent to Edinburgh for analysis.
The RSPB said the incident was "extremely serious", which could have a "potentially devastating" effect on golden eagles in that part of East Sutherland. Two other birds of prey, a sparrowhawk and a buzzard, were also found, making it one of the worst potential cases of wildlife crime in Scotland in recent years.
News of the discovery has caused outrage among conservationists and estate owners, with calls for the perpetrators to be caught and punished.
Golden eagles inhabit the open moorlands and mountains of the Highlands in Scotland, though some can be found in Cumbria. It is estimated there are just 442 breeding pairs in the UK, with the population under continual threat from habitat destruction, persecution and egg collectors. Golden eagles reach sexual maturity late and normally have a single chick in a brood, though many do not survive.
A statement from Skibo Castle said: "The owners and management of Skibo Castle are committed conservationists and do everything they can to support the welfare of wildlife and birds. We will cooperate fully with the authorities in their investigation."