Scotland’s gamekeepers are calling for accountability regarding satellite tags fitted to wildlife.
The call comes after the Scottish Gamekeepers Association learned that a tagged hen harrier, reported as disappearing ‘suspiciously’ in Angus last May, was re-sighted in Perthshire afterwards, according to investigators.
Anti-grouse moor campaigners who owned the tag’s data publicly blamed the grouse industry, urging the Scottish Government to license the sector.
However, no media statements were issued to correct the accusations, leaving local estate employees living with the burden of criminal suspicion.
The SGA has says it is aware of a sea eagle currently flying around Grampian with a tag dangling from its body, potentially endangering its welfare.
The female sea eagle, pegged with yellow wing markings and the letter ‘E’, has been spotted by concerned land managers.
In recent times, four golden eagles have also been independently photographed in the Angus glens with displaced tags; one clearly hanging from a bird’s neck.
Another eagle was observed in Perthshire last week with the bird’s feathers completely obscuring the tag; something manufacturers acknowledge will distort readings.
Gamekeepers believe tags are now being deployed by campaigners as political weapons, aware there is no independent scrutiny.
Whilst the SGA is not advocating a ban, they believe Scottish Government must act to make fitting and monitoring of the devices accountable.
An FOI to Scottish Natural Heritage by SGA revealed that the heritage body currently holds no information from satellite tags in Scotland, despite hundreds being operational.
Similarly, tag reliability cannot be independently verified as there is no duty for tag owners to disclose information regarding malfunction.
SGA chairman Alex Hogg said: ‘At the moment, satellite tags are like the wild west. Anyone with funding can buy one, have it fitted to a protected bird, and retain its data. They can then release interpretations to the media, if the tag stops. We saw this with the choreographed ‘Fred the Eagle’ case near Edinburgh, which remains unexplained despite a concerted attempt to finger a grouse moor.
‘Although tag fitters are approved, we have seen basic “granny knots” used to fit tags and we have just heard of two tagged Harriers in Perthshire being killed by foxes within three days, with only one tag and body recovered. A tagged adult Harrier lost on National Trust ground this year was never found, neither was its tag, and a predated youngster was only discovered by chance. These are stories the public never hear and it is a shame they have to come out behind a veil of secrecy.
‘Despite claims these devices are almost infallible, failure rates and unexplained loss are high and there have been numerous examples of lost birds turning up alive or birds re-appearing miles or days from last tag signals.
‘If this information was held independently, all this could be scrutinised transparently by experts and the relevant authorities could act accordingly.’
Late last year the SGA commissioned a legal opinion of SNH’s report into the fates of satellite tagged golden eagles, a paper which sparked the present review of grouse shooting.
The opinion, authored by QC Ronald Clancy, made a strong case for independent scrutiny of tags as the report relied entirely on manufacturer data for its conclusions.
Alex added: ‘The present tagging system gives rise to accusation but no prosecutions.
‘If tags are to be used to identify crime then the information must be held independently so it may lead to court action.
‘If independent data monitoring makes things more difficult for people committing wildlife crime, that surely is in everyone’s interest.’