Golden eagles dying 'in suspicious circumstances linked to persecution', study finds

Scottish government orders review of grouse moor management as conservationists claim report provides 'irrefutable evidence of systematic criminality'

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The Independent Online

A study showing nearly one-third of tagged golden eagles have been killed in “suspicious circumstances connected with records of illegal persecution” has prompted the Scottish government to order a review of how grouse moors are managed.

The Scottish Natural Heritage report was described by conservationists as “a damning indictment” of the grouse shooting industry, providing “irrefutable evidence” of “systematic, organised criminality”.

After examining the fate of 131 eagles fitted with satellite tags between 2004 and 2016, the study concluded: “As many as 41 (31 per cent) disappeared (presumably died) under suspicious circumstances significantly connected with contemporaneous records of illegal persecution.

“Overall, we conclude that a relatively large number of the satellite-tagged golden eagles were probably killed, mostly on or near some grouse moors where there is recent, independent evidence of illegal persecution.”

The report, titled Analyses of the fates of satellite tracked golden eagles in Scotland, said the suspicious disappearances occurred mainly in six areas, predominantly in the central and eastern Highlands.

It added: “This illegal killing has such a marked effect on the survival rates of the young birds that the potential capacity for the breeding golden eagle population continues to be suppressed around where this persecution largely occurs. In these parts, the prospects for recovery [of the golden eagle population] are poor.”

As one landowners group admitted, the report made “challenging reading for the grouse shooting industry”. Conservationists hailed it as vindication of longstanding claims about persecution by some gamekeepers who break the law to protect grouse from predation by golden eagles.

RSPB Scotland’s head of investigations, Ian Thomson, said: “This report is a damning indictment of Scotland’s driven grouse shooting industry.  

“The irrefutable evidence demonstrating the scale of systematic, organised criminality, is shocking.

 “When you add the disappearances of satellite-tagged white tailed eagles, red kites, goshawks, peregrines and hen harriers, not included in this review, and consider that satellite-tagged birds form a very small proportion of the populations of these species, the overall numbers of eagles and other protected raptors that are actually being killed must be staggering.”

He added: “This report completely bankrupts the myth that raptor persecution is in long term decline and we hope that its publication represents a watershed moment for the future conservation of our birds of prey.”

The Scottish government, which commissioned the report, reacted by announcing it will establish an independent expert group to look at the environmental impact of grouse moor management and to examine regulation options including the introduction of licensing for grouse shoots. 

The Scottish Environment Secretary, Roseanna Cunningham, said she would also commission research into the costs and benefits of large shooting estates to Scotland’s economy and biodiversity.

She added that the Scottish government would “examine how best to protect the valuable role of gamekeepers” while increasing resources for detecting wildlife crime and reviewing “all available legal measures which could be used to target geographical areas of concern”.

Ms Cunningham said: “The findings of this research are deeply concerning.

“The continued killing of protected species of birds of prey damages the reputation of law-abiding gamekeepers, landowners and indeed the country as a whole.

“I would also encourage members of the public to report any suspicious activity to the police.”

The developments follow decades of controversy over whether birds of prey are being persecuted by gamekeepers.

Some gamekeeping and landowners organisations have long argued that the extent of raptor persecution has been grossly exaggerated.

In November, Tim Baynes, director of the Scottish Moorland Group, part of the landowners organisation Scottish Land and Estates, insisted: “Upland estates have been quietly looking after their eagles for many decades, often generations. Grouse shooting is blamed for low numbers in eastern Scotland, but the number of occupied ranges in that region has been stable since national surveys began. 

“The region which shows the greatest increase in range occupancy, 70 per cent, is south central Highlands – an area which includes significant areas of driven grouse moor.

“It is people such as gamekeepers that manage the land where golden eagle increases have occurred.”

After Wednesday’s report was published, David Johnstone, chairman of Scottish Land and Estates admitted: “The publication is challenging reading for the grouse shooting industry even though it is recognised that satellite tags have also stopped working in areas where grouse moors are not located.”

He insisted, however, that incidents of raptor persecution are “at a historically low level”, adding: “The few people who continue to engage in such illegal activity are grievously undermining the very valuable social, economic and environmental contribution of grouse shooting to our rural communities.”

Mr Johnstone welcomed the establishment of the independent expert group, but added: “The importance of it being independent and evidence-led cannot be overstated.

“There has been much heated debate recently and it is essential that whatever action is taken is based on evidence and clear thinking rather than any inherent prejudice against game shooting.”

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) also admitted that the report made “difficult reading”, with a spokesman saying: “Losing, on average, four tagged eagles per year across Scotland is totally unacceptable. The illegal killing of any eagle is condemned wholeheartedly by the SGA and all law abiding gamekeepers.”

The spokesman, however, stressed: “This study does acknowledge recent improvements in some grouse moor areas previously associated with suspected persecution. This change has contributed to the overall betterment of the golden eagle’s conservation status.”

While not seeking to “in any way detract from the report’s findings,” the spokesman added: “The SGA does not believe the report adequately tackles the threat wind farms pose to raptor species, as there is a significant amount of published data from other countries which shows a negative correlation between bird survival and turbine strike.”

The 270-page report, however, ruled out theories that the golden eagle deaths had been caused by birds flying into wind turbines, or by the tagging process itself.

It stated: “Wind farms were not associated with any recorded golden eagle deaths, and there were very few records of tagged young golden eagles near wind farms. Operations associated with tagging had no discernible adverse effects on the welfare, behaviour or survival of the birds.”

The report’s authors also downplayed the extent to which the disappearances could be attributed to failures of the tags, which were fitted to young birds while they were still in the nest. 

“The tags which formed the backbone of the present project appeared to be intrinsically reliable, with a very low rate of unexpected malfunction,” the report said. 

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