RSPB Scotland has today issued an appeal and a £1000 reward for information that will assist a successful prosecution, following the discovery of the body of a golden eagle on Deeside in very fishy circumstances. We spoke to the RSPB today to explore the background to this incident, and how hillwalkers and climbers can do their bit to help report wildlife crimes.
The bird at the centre of today's story had been fitted with a satellite transmitter, allowing its movements to be logged. It was found on 5 May this year, after signals sent by the transmitter indicated that the bird had not moved for several days.
The body was found lying face down with its wings folded under a tree branch, close to a lay-by on a quiet country road near Aboyne. It was seized as evidence by officers from Grampian police.
The carcass was taken for a post mortem at the Scottish Agricultural College laboratory in Aberdeen. This concluded that the bird had suffered two broken legs due to trauma 'that could be consistent with an injury caused by a spring type trap' and that the severity of these injuries 'would prevent the bird from being able to take off.'
'Detecting [such] crimes can be exceptionally hard... Because they tend to venture into the more remote locations I'd ask hillwalkers and climbers to keep an eye out'
The bird had been fitted with a transmitter by RSPB Scotland staff, in full partnership with a local landowner, a few days before it had fledged from a nest in the Monadhliath Mountains south-east of Inverness in July 2011.
By re-examining the satellite data staff discovered the young bird spent its first few months in its natal area before venturing further afield. By April 2012 it was frequenting an area of upper Deeside, before moving south-west into Glenshee.
On 28 April the bird moved eastwards into Angus. The following day at 6am the bird was located on a hillside overlooking Glen Esk. Over the next 15 hours, a succession of satellite tag readings, accurate to within less than 20 metres, showed that the bird did not move from this precise spot until at least 9pm that evening, after nightfall.
However by 4am the next morning, 30 April according to transmission data, it appeared to have travelled during the hours of darkness, some 15km north to the location where its body was subsequently discovered some five days later. Satellite readings revealed that whilst the bird did not move from this position, it was probably alive until 4 May.
Follow-up enquires by both Tayside and Grampian Police found no further evidence as to how the eagle came to suffer its injuries, nor could it be established how the eagle came to move from Glen Esk to a position under a tree branch on Deeside overnight. However a number of eagle down-feathers were found between the lay-by and the bird's final resting place.
We spoke today to Ian Thomson, RSPB Scotland's Head of Investigations.
Most detected incidents of poisoned, shot or trapped raptors occur in the east and south of Scotland, he told us, and take place in areas of extensive grouse moors.
'Some land managers perceive raptors are a threat to grouse stocks, but in fact there's no evidence that Golden Eagles have a significant impact on grouse numbers' he explained.
'Persecuting birds of prey is illegal, but unfortunately detecting the crime can be exceptionally hard. Poisoning, shooting and trapping are carried out in the back of beyond, in remote locations far from the public eye. Because of this we don't know what proportion of incidents are even detected. But what we can see, and what has been scientifically established are the effects on raptor populations.'
It's no coincidence that there are more golden eagles in western Scotland, where deer stalking is a predominant sporting land use, than in the eastern Grampians with their vast swathes of moorland managed for grouse shooting.
'We at RSPB Scotland spend a lot of time assisting the police in investigating this sort of incident, but we can't be everywhere at once. Information from the general public is vital, and because they tend to venture into the more remote locations I'd ask hillwalkers and climbers to keep an eye out, and to please get in touch if they see anything suspicious.'
Even if a wildlife crime is discovered it can be notoriously difficult to identify the perpetrator, let alone achieve a conviction, according to Ian Thomson.
'Police may know on which landholding a crime took place, but if no further evidence is uncovered and no witnesses come forward then there are likely to be no firm grounds for a prosecution' said Thomson.
'But this particular eagle killing is so appalling that we've taken the unusual step of offering a reward, in the hope that it encourages someone to step up and speak out.'
'It is disgraceful that this magnificent bird was subjected to such suffering. The post mortem evidence suggests that this bird was caught in an illegally set-trap, smashing both legs. The data obtained from the satellite transmitter indicated that the eagle did not move from one spot on a hill high above Glen Esk, for over 15 hours. Then, during the night, when eagles do not readily fly, it has inexplicably moved to a new position, hidden under a tree and close to a road. Here, over the next four days, this eagle suffered a lingering death.'
Stuart Housden, RSPB Scotland Director, added:
'Anyone who cares about our wildlife will be disgusted by what appears to be an appalling crime and the lengths taken to hide the facts from discovery. Whilst efforts to stamp out the illegal poisoning of birds of prey are perhaps beginning to yield results, this dreadful case shows that the persecution of our raptors continues through the use of traps and other means.'
'We call upon anyone who can provide further information about this case to contact the wildlife crime officer at either Tayside or Grampian Police without delay. Cases like this really do have a negative impact on Scotland's reputation as a country that respects and values all its wildlife heritage. I am today offering a £1000 reward for information that will assist a successful prosecution.'