GAMEKEEPERS are "guilty until proven innocent" when raptors disappear on Scotland's moors – but there is far less scrutiny of windfarms, despite studies suggesting that big birds like eagles have a higher risk of 'death by turbine' than other species.

Breaking its silence over the issue, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association this week called for better monitoring and reporting of bird fatalities around wind farms to provide greater transparency – suggesting that this might help end the ‘blame culture’ that immediately targets its members when raptors disappear.

Earlier this year, gamekeepers on grouse moors were implicated when a report concluded that up to 41 out of 131 satellite tagged eagles in Scotland might have disappeared over the last 12 years. At the time of its publication, the SGA expressed its dissatisfaction with findings on wind farm impacts, but chose to focus its response on condemning wildlife crime.

But now, after a September report by BTO, RSPB, Birdlife International, IUCN, Cambridge University, University College London, Imperial College London, University of Stellenbosch and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee showed that raptors such as sea eagles and golden eagles are at the highest risk to turbine mortality of all bird species, the SGA is calling for new monitoring codes around windfarms.

Chairman Alex Hogg stressed that the body had no issues with renewables, with many estates now augmenting sport shooting with wind farms or hydro schemes, but said its members had witnessed raptor mortality at wind farm sites.

“A code for on-going monitoring of windfarms, for wildlife impacts would be helpful," said Mr Hogg. "Checks exist but are inconsistent and organised by operators themselves, often using maintenance crew. There is no statutory duty to report bird collisions in Scotland.

“We said at the time we were not convinced by the wind farm element of the satellite tagged eagle report but we didn’t want to detract from our condemnation of illegal behaviour. We have, ourselves, expelled six members in five years for wildlife crime convictions," he stressed.

“However, we disagreed, and still do, with the report’s assumption there would be little motive for wind companies not to report downed birds. Our members have witnessed dead raptors under turbines and up to 200 yards from turbine masts- way beyond the 50metre radius operators are recommended to search and report. Most have felt duty bound not to speak because turbines march onto land they manage.

“The report also said turbines could not be seen as a major cause of missing eagles because no final tag signals were within one kilometre of a turbine. But we know signals only register a limited number of times per day," said Mr Hogg. "We feel there is insufficient data to corroborate.

“By speaking out there will be people all too ready to damn us but, as a representative body, we see it as our duty to defend our members’ right not to be assumed as guilty until proven innocent for the disappearance of every bird that flies over a moor in Scotland, when other factors may or may not be at play," he concluded. "By agreeing codes for monitoring, there would be greater transparency.”