The mystery of a missing golden eagle in Scotland continues.
On 21 January, a GPS satellite tag fitted to a young golden eagle called Fred suddenly and inexplicably stopped sending data close to a grouse moor in the Pentland Hills on the outskirts of Edinburgh.
The researchers who had been tracking Fred’s movements, Dr Ruth Tingay of Raptor Persecution UK and broadcaster and campaigner Chris Packham.
They said that until that point, the tag had been working perfectly and was providing accurate and frequent location information about Fred’s travels – and three-and-a-half days later, the tag began to transmit again for a short period. However, it was in the North Sea, 15 miles offshore from St Andrews. No further GPS data has since been received.
However, analysis of new technical data, provided by the tag manufacturer, has now shed some light on the approximate location of Fred’s tag during those three and a half days of lost GPS transmissions.
Although the tag’s GPS transmissions were suppressed, the technical data, which includes time and date, shows that the tag was still functioning and was periodically communicating briefly with a series of mobile phone masts closest to the tag’s then location.
These data, that gave locational information for the phone masts, suggest that in the days after Fred’s disappearance his tag moved eastwards away from the Pentlands, along a route similar to that of the Edinburgh City Bypass and subsequently the A1 towards Haddington, before it travelled to the North Berwick area on the East Lothian coast.
From there, it is likely that the tag went into the sea as the data then show that the tag began to connect with phone masts along the Fife coast, across the Firth of Forth. Later, the tag was then able, briefly, to resume giving locational GPS transmissions, but by then it was well offshore.
Dr Tingay and Mr Packham alerted experts at RSPB Scotland who immediately notified Police Scotland who began an investigation into Fred’s suspicious disappearance.
Dr Tingay said: ‘That someone might have been travelling around the Edinburgh City Bypass with a dead golden eagle in the boot of a vehicle is sickening.
‘These new tags we’re using to track golden eagles like Fred offer a highly sophisticated technical opportunity, not just to learn about the eagles’ movements when they’re alive but also, it seems, an insight in to the lengths someone will go to try and remove evidence to cover their crime.’
Chris added: ‘We don’t know whether this tag was still attached to Fred as it travelled across East Lothian and in to the North Sea but we do know that the tag’s movements are a clear indication of foul play.
‘Whether it was an amateurish attempt to mask the illegal killing of Fred in the Pentlands by dumping the tag, and possibly Fred, in the North Sea to make it look like he had drowned, we’ll never know. We do know that, once again, we’ve lost a young golden eagle in the vicinity of a grouse moor and nobody will be held to account.
‘The Scottish Government needs to do more, immediately, to protect Scotland’s birds of prey. It’s crystal clear that raptors continue to be killed and the criminals responsible think they are untouchable.’
Ian Thomson, head of investigations at RSPB Scotland said: ‘This new information makes the probability of Fred’s death being a wildlife crime even more likely.
‘The continued denials of any suspicion around the case, and attempts at coming up with elaborate alternative versions of events, have been identical to those in virtually every other case where a satellite-tagged raptor has disappeared.
‘It is a great shame that some representatives of the gamebird shooting industry, who profess to be “true conservationists” and “guardians of the countryside”, are the same individuals who seek more to shoot the messenger than to face up to and marginalise the criminals who exist in plain sight in their community.’
However, David Johnstone, chairman of Scottish Land and Estates, said: ‘Once again, we would urge anyone with information regarding the missing golden eagle Fred to make this known to Police Scotland as soon as possible. Everyone wants to establish the facts in this case and any help that can be provided to the police which will let them decide whether a crime has been committed or not will be of assistance. We condemn all forms of wildlife crime.
‘We believe there is a live investigation ongoing but we are once again witnessing campaigners who are pressing for greater controls on grouse moor management putting their own interpretations on some of the evidence.
‘It is perfectly legitimate to be in favour or against grouse shooting but it is not right that important satellite tag data collection is left in the hands of those who are pursuing a particular agenda. This case has shone a light on why it is so important that there is far greater independence and neutrality on the data that comes from satellite tags.
‘The latest supposition from activists suggests that the bird has been killed on or near a grouse moor, its tag suppressed, the carcass driven round Edinburgh City bypass before being placed in the North Sea or loaded onto a boat to be taken out to sea before being dumped. This would seem an extraordinary and very elaborate sequence of events.
‘Everyone wants to find out what has actually happened to Fred but to do that we need facts rather than theories.’
Anyone with information about Fred’s disappearance is urged to contact Police Scotland on 101, or the RSPB’s confidential raptor crime hotline 0300 999 0101.