A satellite tag belonging to a missing golden eagle has been found dumped in a river – with wildlife bosses claiming this shows the extremes criminals will go to hide their acts.
The young eagle vanished in May 2016, just days after moving to the Strathbraan area in Perthshire.
Up until then, his tag had been working properly. After it dropped off, a search was carried out around his last known location but no evidence of what happened to the bird was found.
But a few months ago, a walker and his son discovered the tag, which had been wrapped in lead sheeting and then dumped in the River Braan near Dunkeld.
Police have since conducted forensic analysis on the tag and inquiries are ongoing.
RSPB Scotland said the discovery, made on the banks of the river on May 21, shows the lengths that raptor persecutors will go to hide their crimes.
But the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and the Scottish Land and Estates urged for caution in assuming that all missing tags were due to persecution.
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.
“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.”
Duncan Orr-Ewing, a member of the Central Scotland Raptor Study Group and RSPB Scotland’s head of species and land management, who tagged the bird in 2014, said the loss of transmission from tags is “an issue of increasing public concern”.
He added that there is “no other reasonable explanation” for the removal of the tag and attempted destruction than criminal activity.
But a spokesman for The Scottish Gamekeepers Association said that while it would be concerning if this is what had actually happened to the eagle, assumptions should not be made.
“It is one of many possible interpretations and until any forensic process is concluded it would be unwise of us to comment further or add to speculation on who may have covered up a tag or what their interests were in doing so,” he said.
“To state that this is what happens to every missing satellite tag in Scotland is without evidential basis whatsoever.
“Satellite tags have become heavily weaponised by political campaigners. They elicit high levels of publicity and a person finding one on their land would not want it around, given the scrutiny they would come under.
“We will await to see what the police can uncover from the evidence. We hope they find the truth of what has happened, for everyone’s sake.”
Scottish Land and Estates chairman Mark Tennant called for “collaboration and cooperation” to establish what happened to the golden eagle.
He said: “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.
“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.
“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.”
The Scottish Government has condemned crime against wildlife and urged anyone with any information to contact police.