‘The killing has been relentless’: RSPB calls for urgent change after poisoning of rare white-tailed eagle on Scottish grouse moor

Police launch appeal for information over ‘suspicious’ killing of satellite-tagged bird in area with history of raptor persecution

Harry Cockburn
Tuesday 28 July 2020 20:48 BST
White-tailed eagle found illegally poisoned on Scottish grouse moor

The RSPB has called for urgent government action to halt the illegal killings of birds of prey in England and Scotland after a rare white-tailed eagle was found dead on a grouse moor in Aberdeenshire.

The healthy juvenile bird - just over a year old - had been fitted with a satellite transmitter and investigators confirmed it had been poisoned with an illegal substance.

Police Scotland are treating the incident as suspicious and are appealing for information.

The bird was found on a grouse moor in the Strathdon area of Upper Donside, which the RSPB said was an area with a history of “relentless” and “shameful persecution” of raptors, where in recent years several golden eagles and another young white-tailed eagle have been illegally killed.

The white-tailed eagle, also known as the sea eagle, is the UK’s largest bird of prey, with a wingspan approaching 8 feet - for this reason they are sometimes referred to as “flying barn doors”. The species was relentlessly persecuted until it was entirely extinct from the country by the early 20th century.

The individual bird which was killed had represented a success for the reintroduction of the species in eastern Scotland.

“It’s actually quite a notable bird, Ian Thomson, the RSPB’s head of investigations, Scotland, told The Independent.

“This was the first successful nest by a second generation bird from eastern Scotland.”

“We had a reintroduction programme for white-tailed eagles in eastern Scotland which ran from 2007 to 2012. This bird is the first grandchild, if you like, to fledge from a nest. This bird’s mother was one of the first generation of wild-bred east coast birds.”

In all, there are just over 150 pairs of white-tailed eagles in the UK, following reintroduction programmes in Scotland and on the Isle of Wight.

Previous reintroductions have helped make a tentative re-establishment of white-tailed in west Scotland, but in the east very few pairs are established.

“This bird marked the future,” Mr Thomson said, “so to have it snuffed out after barely a year is deeply depressing for anyone who cares about our natural heritage and seeing these fantastic birds back in our countryside.”

A white-tailed eagle clutches a fish in its talons in Scotland. Herring gull for scale (Getty )
A white-tailed eagle clutches a fish in its talons in Scotland. Herring gull for scale (Getty ) (Getty)

He said it became apparent in early April that the satellite tag on the bird indicated it appeared to have stopped moving.

“This was during the very early weeks of lockdown - so in essence our countryside was closed to all but local people.

“It’s a very remote area of upland Aberdeenshire, so, as we do in all such cases, we reported it to Police Scotland.

“They quickly responded, attended the locus and confirmed the bird was dead and recovered the carcass.”

The RSPB is calling for the introduction of licenses for grouse shooting, which can be revoked in the case of evidence of criminal activity against protected species.

“We now need strong and meaningful deterrents to such abhorrent crimes,” the organisation said in a blog this week.

“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 be 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.”

“In other words, if you are linked to criminality, you lose the right to shoot grouse,” Mr Thomson said.

“In order to do that we need a licencing scheme for grouse shooting. Those who are acting within the law would have absolutely nothing to fear from that. But the loss of the potential right to shoot grouse and the loss of the income that brings in would at last be a meaningful deterrent against these criminals and we think it would have to happen two or three times for the message to sink in.”

Mr Thomson also said the problem had been worse in recent months during the coronavirus lockdowns, when Scottish authorities implemented a five-mile travel limit.

“The killing has been relentless, particularly during lockdown, when there’s been even fewer witnesses than usual. Certainly my colleagues south of the border have told me of a surge, a massive rise in persecutions, particularly in Yorkshire.”

Police Scotland said: “The bird of prey was recovered from Donside, Aberdeenshire, in April. A post mortem has now established it died as a result of pesticide poisoning. It had been satellite tagged.

“The death is being treated as suspicious. An investigation is ongoing and Police Scotland is appealing for information to help identify those responsible.”

Police Inspector Sheila McDerment, who chairs the North East Partnership Against Wildlife Crime, said: “As well as being illegal, poisoning is a cruel way to kill a bird. It also puts the lives of other creatures and plants at risk and impacts negatively on our environment.

“This incident is particularly upsetting because these rare and beautiful birds had been reintroduced to Scotland after being extinct throughout the UK.

“Raptor persecution is one of six priorities set by the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit. In the North East we work closely with a number of partners to tackle wildlife crime. Members of the public are our eyes and ears.

“I appeal to anyone out there who may hold any information about this incident to help us bring the offender to justice by coming forward and telling us what they know.”

The force added: “Please contact Police Scotland on 101 if you have information about this crime, quoting crime reference number CF0160960720. You can also report information anonymously by contacting Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.”

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