The future of Scotland’s golden eagle population is to be gauged in a major new study.
Numbers of the majestic raptors will be recorded over the next six month in research conducted by Scottish Natural Heritage and the RSPB.
It will be the first survey of its type in 12 years
All of the golden eagles in Great Britain are found in Scotland expect for a solitary male in the Lake District.
Much of the population is in the west Highlands and islands of Scotland.
The last population count found there were 442 breeding pairs of golden eagles in Scotland.
However, declines had been reported in North Central and South Central Highlands.
Threats remain to the golden eagle population in Scotland, the RSPB said.
Wildlife crime continues to be a major risk, with 17 golden eagles confirmed illegally killed in Scotland between 2003 and 2013.
Changes to upland management and forestry plus the advent of windfarms can also potentially affect numbers, it has been claimed.
Andrew Stevenson, ornithological adviser to SNH, said: “Although around half the golden eagle population is monitored every year by the Scottish Raptor Study Group, these broader national surveys are vital to fill the gaps on the status of the whole population.
“We use the results of these surveys to make decisions about the future conservation of the golden eagle.
“Golden eagles face a range of issues. Persecution is a major concern in some areas, but poor quality habitat with reduced prey is also a worry in parts of the west Highlands.
“Intriguingly, there has been a suggestion in recent years that some pairs have learned to cope with fairly extensive forests, despite it being a factor in some range losses historically.
“The potential risks from renewables have also increased as the industry grows.”
Dr Daniel Hayhow from the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, said an accurate count of breeding pairs was essential to project how the population will fare in the future, given that the birds don’t mate until they are four or five years old.
“This national survey is really important to the conservation efforts for golden eagles,” Dr Hayhow added.
The survey will cover all current known golden eagle hunting and nesting areas, or ‘home ranges’.
Areas where golden eagles have previously inhabited will also be assessed to check for any signs of their return.
Licensed surveyors will visit each possible home range three times, first to look for the birds or signs of their presence and then to check if pairs are breeding.
Finally, the researchers will establish if the birds have been successful in producing chicks.