A SATELLITE tag from a golden eagle missing since 2016 has been recovered from a Highland river – apparently wrapped in lead sheeting to stifle its signal.

The object was spotted by walkers on the banks of the River Braan near Dunkeld in Perthshire on May 21, and RSPB Scotland has now highlighted the find as evidence that the bird was deliberately killed and its tracking device equally deliberately disabled.

The tag had a label with contact details and a serial number, and Police Scotland have since held it for forensic analysis, which is ongoing.

RSPB Scotland’s head of investigations, Ian Thomson, said: “As is the case in virtually every raptor persecution investigation, nobody seemed to know anything and, as is the case with every suspicious satellite tagged raptor disappearance on a grouse moor, spurious alternative theories as to what may have happened to the bird and tag were suggested. However, now we know the truth.

“This young eagle was killed illegally. The tag was clearly removed from the bird, its antenna was cut off, and the tag was then wrapped in a piece of lead sheeting, presumably because the perpetrator thought this would stop it transmitting. The package was then cast into the river, never to be seen again. Or so they thought," said Mr Thomson.

“This discovery gives unequivocal proof not only of what is happening to these birds, but also the lengths to which the criminals involved in the killing of our raptors will go to dispose of evidence and evade justice. It is not unreasonable to conclude that the vast majority of other birds of prey and their tags that have disappeared on Scotland’s grouse moors have suffered similar fates.”

Duncan Orr-Ewing, a member of the Central Scotland Raptor Study Group and RSPB Scotland’s head of species and land management, said: “The number of satellite tags fitted to raptors, functioning exactly as expected, only to have stopped suddenly on a grouse moor, is an issue of increasing public concern.

"There is no other reasonable explanation as to why this tag has ended up in the river where it was found, wrapped in metal, and with the harness and antenna cut. For me this incident is doubly distressing as it is a bird that I tagged with a colleague in 2014, and it originates from a nest site in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park where there has been a long history of local community protection from egg collectors.   

“More disappearances of tagged birds this year, as well as shooting and poisoning cases, destroy any pretence that the grouse shooting industry is able to self-regulate, even during a national pandemic. It is abundantly clear that the only way to stop this culturally ingrained and organised criminality against Scotland’s protected raptors is through robust, and immediate, regulation. We call upon the Scottish Government to prioritise this as their response to the Werritty Review.”

Responding, chairman of Scottish Land and Estates, Mark Tennant, accused RSPB Scotland of using as yet unproven allegations to further its 'political objective' of imposing licensing on grouse moor operators.

“Where there is an indication that a wildlife crime may have been committed, we fully support a thorough police investigation and any perpetrator being brought to justice," said Mr Tennant.

“However, what must be questioned is the blatant use of alleged incidents in pursuit of a long held political objective of licensing grouse shooting. It is more than four years since this bird disappeared and four months since the satellite tag is claimed to have been discovered. Collaboration and cooperation with estates and other partners in the local area over this period should have been the basis for finding out what happened the bird," he said.

“This particular incident highlights the need for the control of satellite tags to be placed into the hands of an independent organisation and for that data to be shared publicly in real-time. The golden eagle population in Scotland is thriving, including on grouse moors where eagles pose little problem to land management activities. Tags will continue to be used in future years but as the eagle population hopefully continues to grow then it is correct that everyone has confidence in their use and how that data is controlled transparently.”

A spokesperson for the Tayside and Central Scotland Moorland Group said: “People in the area have stated before that there needs to be a better process regarding satellite tagging in Scotland. It has been refreshing recently to see other bodies, who fit tags, actually publishing the data in real time, online. Campaign groups aren’t being transparent in that way and this needs to change.

“It is too easy for them to say 'we’ve found a covered tag, it must have been a grouse moor', but there is no proof that this is what has happened. Hopefully the Police can get to the bottom of it and people can be removed from unfair suspicion.”