As a young golden eagle hops between woodlands in the Pentland Hills in Scotland, a team watches on, delighted that he has finally left his parents’ home. This is Fred, and through the satellite tag attached to him, the team will soon learn more about the movements and behaviours of golden eagles. Or so they hope.
On 20th January 2018, Fred roosts overnight close to a grouse moor near Balerno. The next day, the GPS signal from his tag stops. Fred is missing. It is three-and-a-half days before the tag (which normally transmits at frequent intervals throughout the day and night) sends a new location, which only serves to deepen the mystery of his disappearance even further.
When a new location alert finally comes through to conservationist Dr Ruth Tingay’s email, she breathes a sigh of relief. But when she opens the email, she sees that Fred, or at least his tag, is in the North Sea, 10 miles from the coast of Scotland.
She calls Ian Thompson, the head of investigations at RSPB Scotland.
“We have a big problem here. Something very odd has happened to this bird,” he says, looking at the pattern of signals.
The signal keeps moving further out to sea, until the final reading points to a spot 15 miles from the coast.
Fred, Ian explains, would not have made this trip of his own accord: “A golden eagle is not going to fly out there. Why would it? Eagles do not like flying over big expanses of open water, especially ones where the bird can’t see the other side.”
Ruth says that while it is possible that Fred made this trip by himself, it is extremely unlikely. Even if the young bird had flown 15km out to sea, the satellite tag would have shown the GPS data, and given a detailed route. The fact that the GPS signal disappeared makes Fred’s disappearance even more suspicious.
Ruth is now certain that this young golden eagle is dead.
Broadcaster and naturalist Chris Packham is also part of the satellite-tagging team. In a film about Fred’s disappearance, he says: “I think it’s fair to say that this poor eagle has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The tags we’re using these days are ever more sophisticated and they’re not prone to failure - in fact they’re incredibly reliable.”
Ruth does not know for certain what happened to Fred, but she has a theory based on others’ experience from similar situations. She thinks it likely that Fred was killed soon after 10am on 21st January, when his signal went dead.
“I think it’s possible that the tag attached to Fred was hidden, and quite possibly, the dead bird and tag were taken in a boat and dumped out to sea. That’s the most plausible explanation to me,” she says.
Another case of raptor persecution?
Sadly, this is not an isolated story. Ruth explains that researchers have seen a regular pattern; when satellite tags stop transmitting, the tag is nowhere to be found, and neither is the body. Fred, she says, is just another name on a long list of tagged eagles which have disappeared in suspicious circumstances.
“The majority of raptor persecution cases are taking place on land that is managed for game shooting, or near to it, because these eagles are seen as a threat to game birds, and to the gamekeepers’ livelihoods. The more birds the landowners have available to shoot, the more money they can get from paying guests,” Ruth explains.
According to Chris Packham’s film, there is a history of wildlife crime in the very area where Fred was roosting before he disappeared.
Close by, a merlin’s nest was shot out in 2017. The police are certain of this, because when the top of the tree was x-rayed, it was riddled with lead shot. A raven’s nest was similarly destroyed in 2016, and in 2017 another raven’s nest failed when the young starved to death, because the adults never returned.
“There’s no doubt at all that there is persecution taking place in this area,” Chris says.
In a Scottish Government-commissioned report last year, Scottish Natural Heritage found that of 131 young eagles tracked, as many as 41 (31%) have disappeared under suspicious circumstances.
The report says: “Some, but not all, areas managed as grouse moors were strongly associated with the disappearance of many of the tagged eagles.”
Chris Packham says that the current laws do not protect eagles, and too many birds like Fred are dying or disappearing close to driven grouse moors.
Better protection for raptors
Following the Scottish Natural Heritage report, environment cabinet secretary Roseanna Cunningham ordered a review of grouse moor management practices, with a view to introducing a licensing scheme for game-shooting estates.
Roseanna has seen the results of illegal persecution before, and seen the bodies of birds which have been targeted.
“I don’t want to have to be in a position of looking at more of them. I don’t want to have to be in a position of making excuses for people who, frankly, are criminals, because they are acting outside the law,” she says.
She says the Scottish Government is going to increase sentences for wildlife crime. Currently, anyone found guilty of an offence in Scotland could pay a fine of up to £5,000, or face prison for up to six months, or both.
Ruth Tingay wants to see a total ban on driven grouse moor shooting, but she also wants to be realistic. She says: “The bottom line is that we want to see some kind of regulation. Because at the moment they’re just getting away with incredibly damaging practices, and have been for some time.”
When it comes to driven grouse moors, Ruth is playing the long game. For the eagles under threat of persecution, licensing could offer a glimmer of hope. Alternatively, if licensing fails to protect raptors from persecution, it could pave the way towards a strong argument for banning the practice.
Watch Chris Packham’s film, The Story of Fred, and look out soon for Ruth Tingay’s Lush Summit talk. You can also hear Ruth Tingay talk to Charlie Moores about raptor persecution.
Photo: Fred the golden eagle, courtesy of Ruth Tingay.