RSPB Scotland has called for licensing to be introduced for grouse shooting following the disappearance of two hen harriers.
The charity said BBC Scotland’s Landward programme on Thursday indicated the tagged birds went missing near estates used for grouse shooting.
But the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association (SGA) said it cannot trust how tag data is being interpreted “until satellite tags are monitored independently of organisations which are lobbying for increased grouse moor legislation”.
RSPB Scotland said the programme revealed the disappearance of Marlin, a young male, that fledged from a nest at Mar Lodge Estate in Aberdeenshire in 2018.
A second male, Hoolie, came from a nest in Easter Ross the same year.
Both birds were tagged before they left their nests as part of an EU project allowing their movements to be tracked.
The birds left Scotland before returning this year to find mates.
A month after Hoolie came back in March his tag suddenly stopped transmitting.
RSPB Scotland said the programme shows his last transmitted location was on April 5 and indicated he was over an area of moorland managed for grouse shooting near Newtonmore, in the Cairngorms National Park.
The charity said he disappeared close to where another tagged hen harrier, Lad, was found dead in 2015, with injuries consistent with being shot.
Just three days after Hoolie’s tag ended transmission, on April 8, Marlin’s tag also stopped suddenly, RSPB said.
His last transmitted position was over a grouse moor near Strathdon, West Aberdeenshire, also in the national park.
The charity said another Mar Lodge hen harrier, Marci, disappeared last April less than a kilometre away, on the same grouse moor.
RSPB Scotland said when a tagged hen harrier dies of natural causes the tag continues to transmit its location allowing for the body to be recovered.
Police Scotland carried out searches for the birds but neither the tags or the bodies were found, and neither tag has transmitted further data, the charity added.
Ian Thomson, RSPB Scotland’s head of investigations, said: “Scotland had only just been put into lockdown in early April and yet protected birds of prey equipped with highly reliable technology have disappeared on land managed for driven grouse moors.
“The fact that these two birds have disappeared very close to where other similar incidents have occurred only heightens suspicions that these birds can be added to the very long list of protected birds of prey killed on grouse moors.
“The Scottish Government’s independent review of grouse moor management accepted the need for regulation of grouse shooting but proposed a five-year probationary period to allow populations of hen harriers and other birds of prey on or near grouse shooting estates to recover to a ‘favourable’ conservation status.
“We believe that this approach is unworkable in practice and urge the introduction of a licensing scheme as soon as possible.”
An SGA spokesman said: “Until satellite tags are monitored independently of organisations which are lobbying for increased grouse moor legislation, we cannot have trust in how data is being interpreted and reported.”
He highlighted apparent discrepancies in previous tags which were not found.
The spokesman added: “The SGA has a very clear wildlife crime policy and has expelled eight members in seven years who have been convicted of wildlife crime.
“We will always take a hard stance on this issue. However, we will not hang people out to dry on the basis of speculation provided by groups with clear agendas.”
Tim Baynes, moorland director, Scottish Land and Estates, said: “We were made aware today of information that two satellite-tagged hen harriers had stopped transmitting and have contacted Police Scotland for further information.
“The estates where the birds were last located emphatically deny any involvement in their disappearance.
“The estates, one of which is an active participant in the Heads Up for Harriers scheme to protect the species, had assisted police in searches for the birds but police found nothing on either estate to warrant further investigation.”