Scottish grouse moor owners have been warned they face much tougher regulation after an inquiry was launched into the disappearance of legally protected golden eagles in the Highlands.
Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish environment secretary, ordered the review after eight golden eagles vanished in an area of the Monadhliath mountains known for its grouse shooting, south of Inverness.
The eight eagles, which had all been satellite-tagged as part of long-running efforts by conservationists to monitor their struggling populations, disappeared in the last five years; the eighth bird, called Brodie, vanished in early July.
The warnings came as the shooting industry prepares to celebrate the Glorious 12th this weekend, the traditional start in August of the grouse shooting season, leading to accusations from the industry the disclosures were timed for maximum effect.
Conservationists including specialists at Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the government’s agency, have long suspected golden eagles are failing to breed in ideal territories in the Highlands, Perthshire and the Borders because of systematic persecution by gamekeepers.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Scotland said the latest disappearance added to its fears that these eagles and their transmitters were being destroyed after the birds were shot, trapped or poisoned.
None of the missing birds or their tags has been found, said Ian Thomson, its head of investigations, but the close cluster of cases stretched coincidence. There were repeated proven cases of golden eagles being shot or trapped over recent years.
“Given the reliability of the transmitters, the chance of so many birds disappearing over such a short timescale without some kind of human interference is so small as to be negligible,” Thomson said. “The pattern we see here is consistent with the birds having been killed and the transmitters destroyed.”
Cunningham has asked SNH to analyse data gathered on around 90 tagged golden eagles to establish whether there were any clear, suspicious patterns. The latest reports were “very disturbing and disappointing,” she said.
“Grouse moor management does help species such as curlew and golden plover as well as generating much-needed rural employment and income but this cannot be at any price,” Cunningham added.
“The public rightly expects all businesses in Scotland to obey the law. Let me be clear: grouse shooting is no exception. As previously stated, the Scottish government is prepared to introduce further regulation of shooting businesses if necessary. It will be unfortunate if the activities of a few bring further regulation on the whole sector, but that is the risk those who defy the law and defy public opinion are running.”
Tim Baynes, director of the Scottish Moorland Group, which represents grouse moor managers and insists it enthusiastically supports bird-of-prey conservation, said he was deeply suspicious about the RSPB’s motives and its conclusions. “There is no clear evidence of the golden eagles having even died in the Monadhliath area, let alone having been ‘persecuted’ on grouse moors as the RSPB is alleging,” Baynes said.
“It is now over a month since the disappearance of this latest eagle and it would have been in everyone’s interests if the matter had been raised immediately. There are other explanations for satellite tags stopping working.
“Where there is not a police investigation, as in these cases, contact should be made with local land managers who are often in the best position to help with information. Regrettably, the RSPB has not done this and it is not the first time. The RSPB would appear to be more interested in generating anti-shooting publicity on the eve of the grouse shooting season.”
This article was first published by The Guardian on 11 Aug 2016.