The disappearance of two sat-tagged golden eagles

Alan Stewart with the poisoned golden eagle Alma in 2009

For those who are unaware, it was announced today that on the morning of 18th April two satellite-tagged golden eagles vanished within hours of each other on a grouse moor in Perthshire. The estate on which they were last located through the sat-tagging data is named as Auchnafree Estate.

So what could have happened to them? Might they have died of natural causes. Two young and apparently healthy golden eagles don’t normally die on the same date and in the same place. But what if they did. Satellite tags keep transmitting after its host bird dies. The signal would indicate that the bird was on the ground and stationary and would give an accurate grid reference to within a few yards of the bird. The signal may even have given more information than this. In any case those responsible for monitoring the signal would know that something was wrong, especially if the signals suddenly stopped as so many have done in the recent past despite the tags having been working perfectly well up to that point. All of this follows a sinister pattern and those monitoring the signals (or lack thereof) would suspect that the birds had been removed. The police would then be contacted.

A thorough search for the birds was reported as having been carried out by Police Scotland, National Wildlife Crime Unit and RSPB Scotland Investigations. If the birds had still been at their last location as transmitted by the tag, the recovery would be straightforward. When I went to recover the poisoned golden eagle Alma from Millden Estate in Glenesk in Angus in 2009 the reference given by the tag led us straight to the bird. Since in this case the birds were no longer at their last reference point it was hardly surprising that no trace was found of either of the golden eagles. Had the two tags fallen from the birds by some remarkable coincidence the result would have been the same.

It was even more suspicious that the last reference point of one of the golden eagles was at a turning point of a hill track on the estate, and it is also known that at that time the eagle was at ‘ground level’ – in other words not in the air – for six minutes before the signal disappeared. Had it been put in a vehicle and removed? I doubt that taking all these circumstances into account anyone could argue that the disappearance of the two golden eagles was in any way through a natural death.

These circumstances suggest to me that this is a crime, indeed two crimes, and I am sure that the police will record it as such based on circumstantial and sat-tag evidence. But It is highly unlikely, given the complete absence of information coming forward from the game management community, that anyone will be convicted or even charged. Nevertheless the police will continue their investigation.

What lines might they follow? Looking at intelligence held on the Scottish Intelligence Database and by the NWCU is always the starting point. Is there intelligence showing that related incidents have taken place in that area, on that estate or by any named individual? Intelligence, of course, cannot convict anyone; it needs to be converted to evidence, but it is a good start and I bet that the officer in charge of the case already has one or maybe even two likely suspects.

Grouse moors are always well guarded by the gamekeepers and not much can move on the estate without them being aware. If a vehicle was involved in picking up or disposing of the birds who might have access with a vehicle? This is especially interesting in the case of Auchnafree Estate as it is ‘landlocked’ and not connected by any public road. Can any conclusions be drawn from that? Would an eagle-sized bird placed in a vehicle or any receptacle leave any DNA traces? That possibility will have been considered.

How did the birds die, always a difficult question to answer in the absence of the bodies, (yet people have been convicted of the murder of humans without the body being found). Options are shooting, trapping or poisoning. My guess, because there are two victims and their deaths are closely related in time and location, would be poisoning. There may have been evidence found of how the birds died during the search, but the police would be keeping that under their hat meantime.

It is early days but so far the only comment I have seen from the gamkeeping community is a press release from the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association. Did they roundly condemn the killing of two of Scotland’s golden eagles? Did they say that it looks highly suspicious and if it was the work of a gamekeeper he is a disgrace to the name of gamekeeping? Did they ask their members to report any suspected killing of birds of prey to the police? Did they say to their members please stop this as it will ultimately ruin all our occupations?

No, none of those.  They put out a mealy-mouthed statement that they will expel members who commit wildlife offences and state that ‘We understand, despite extensive and thorough searches by the Police, that no evidence of a wildlife crime was discovered on the land in question.’ Is that not a signal to criminals involved in raptor persecution to just keep doing more of the same? They also launched a Parliamentary petition calling for independent monitoring of satellite tags fitted to birds of prey as they have doubts on the accuracy of sat-tag data. If they knew a bit more about the ownership of sat-tag data and if they had been at a recent conference on sat-tagging hosted by Scottish Natural Heritage at Battleby they would have no need to petition for independent monitoring and could put their efforts into putting an end to crime committed against protected species on grouse moors.  

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