ANOTHER satellite-tagged golden eagle has gone missing in an area dubbed the “black hole” of Inverness-shire – and the RSPB has infuriated game shooting interests in the area by pointing the finger of blame at them, ahead of any official verdict.

Data from the two-year old male bird's satellite transmitter showed that the eagle had been living in an upland area mainly managed for driven grouse shooting, north of Tomatin, since early last year. The bird stayed almost exclusively in this area until mid-December, when his tag, that had been functioning normally, stopped transmitting.

A follow-up investigation by Police Scotland has yielded no further clues as to the bird’s fate, and no further data has been received from its satellite tag.

RSPB Scotland’s head of species and land management, Duncan Orr-Ewing said: “A report published by the Scottish Government last May, prompted by the regular disappearance of satellite-tagged eagles in this same area, provided unequivocal evidence that the sudden disappearance of these birds is highly suspicious.

“This is now the twelfth tagged eagle to go missing in this 'black hole' in just seven years and is entirely consistent with the systematic and ongoing illegal persecution of eagles in this area," he declared. “Despite very recent and high level public warnings from Scottish Government, it appears that criminals intent on killing golden eagles continue to target these magnificent birds, especially in areas managed for driven grouse shooting.

“Patience with self-regulation is at an end and meaningful deterrents are now urgently required," said Mr Orr-Ewing. "We support the introduction of new measures to license driven grouse shooting, including powers for the public authorities to remove such licences, where there is good evidence of criminal behaviour."

But this conclusion – and those suggested consequences – are hotly disputed by both Scottish Land and Estates and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association.

SLaE chairman David Johnstone said: “We are deeply concerned by the assumption by RSPB that this eagle is most likely the victim of a wildlife crime perpetrated on a grouse moor. Yet again, we see RSPB acting unilaterally as judge and jury without waiting for those professional experts in the police and procurator fiscal's office to reach an informed decision as to the actual facts.

“Incidents such as this absolutely need to be investigated but it is for Police Scotland to lead investigations. What we have here is a sustained effort to blacken the name of grouse shooting without evidence,” said Mr Johnstone.

A spokesman for the SGA said: “It is becoming increasingly impossible to gain full transparency surrounding these incidents when those holding the data are the tag owners who then dictate process and message.

“At the same time, the same tag owners are actively lobbying to persuade government to legislate against grouse moors. The public deserve to see the hard evidence which exists that the lost signal was down to grouse management and not any other cause such as a faltering tag, natural mortality, eagles fighting over territory or any other kind of the other land uses in the broad general area which include farming, forestry and wind energy.”

Anyone who can provide information about the disappearance of this bird, or other raptor persecution incidents, is asked to contact Police Scotland on 101, or to phone the confidential RSPB raptor crime hotline on 0300 999 0101.