RPUK/Chris Packham press release:
NEW INFORMATION REVEALS MORE ABOUT GOLDEN EAGLE FRED’S SUSPICIOUS DISAPPEARANCE
On 21st 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. Up until that point the tag had been working perfectly and was providing accurate and frequent location information about Fred’s travels.
Photo of Fred by Ruth Tingay:
Strangely, three and half days later, the tag began to transmit again for a short period, but astonishingly, it was in the North Sea, 15 miles offshore from St Andrews. No further GPS data have been received.
Map showing Fred’s movements in the Pentland Hills and the last known position of his tag in the North Sea:
The researchers who had been tracking Fred’s movements (Dr Ruth Tingay of Raptor Persecution UK and broadcaster and campaigner Chris Packham) alerted experts at RSPB Scotland who immediately notified Police Scotland who began an investigation into Fred’s suspicious disappearance.
The 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 tag’s technical data, which includes time & 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.
Map showing the phone masts (red dots) with which Fred’s tag was communicating between 21-25 January 2018. The green dot shows the final known GPS position of the tag on 25th Jan. (Map: RPUK)
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 Packham said: “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.”
Lothian MSP Andy Wightman said: “The evidence uncovered from Fred’s satellite tag is sufficient to convince me that he died in suspicious circumstances. Further details may never be known but it is beyond contempt that protected species such as Golden Eagles continue to be persecuted across Scotland.
I urge all those who use the Pentlands Regional Park on a regular basis to remain vigilant and am extremely grateful to Dr Ruth Tingay and Police Scotland for their diligence and perseverance in a very difficult case”.
Last year a Scottish Government-commissioned report showed that 41 of 131 satellite-tagged golden eagles had disappeared (presumed dead) in suspicious circumstances in Scotland, predominantly on or near to some driven grouse moors. In response to that report’s findings, the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, ordered a review of grouse moor management practices with a view to introducing a licensing scheme for game-shooting estates.
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.
We’ve produced a video about the location of Fred’s tag between 21-25 January:
The new information we’ve been able to retrieve from the tag (as discussed by Chris Packham in the video) deserves a little bit more explanation.
It’s important to understand that the new data do NOT provide detailed GPS locations of the tag – i.e. the new information only tells us which nearby phone mast the tag was communicating with, it does NOT tell us the exact position of the tag when it was ‘talking’ to the phone masts, as the tag’s GPS function was disabled (more on this below).
Nevertheless, the position of the phone masts and the times/dates the tag was communicating with them does show a very clear direction of travel from the Pentlands and out in to the North Sea. For investigative reasons, we are not yet revealing the times/dates those phone masts were ‘pinged’.
The disabling of the tag’s GPS function is interesting. It is surprisingly easy to suppress the tag’s GPS signal. For obvious reasons, we have no intention of providing a description of how to do that, but needless to say you don’t need a Faraday cage or indeed any specialist equipment to block the signal of this particular tag type.
That begs the question, was Fred’s tag deliberately disabled to hide the GPS data transmissions? Let’s assume for a minute that it was. Whoever did that, was smart enough to know how to suppress the GPS signal but not smart enough to know that the tag would still be trying to communicate with the nearest phone mast. Schoolboy error.
An alternative explanation is that the tag was not deliberately disabled at all. Whoever took that tag (and perhaps Fred’s corpse) from the Pentlands might just have been banking on the idea that the tag only sends data at set periods of time inbetween battery-charging periods (as with the Hen Harrier satellite tags), and so they may have thought they could get it to the coast and in to the sea without anybody who was monitoring the tag’s data knowing that something was wrong. They may have decided to dump the tag (and possibly Fred) in to the sea to make it look as though he flew out there of his own accord and simply drowned. Again, schoolboy error. We are not using the same type of tag as those used on Hen Harriers.
We know from reading various, frankly laughable, theories posted on social media over the last few weeks that the majority of commentators have no clue/understanding of (a) the type of tag we are using, (b) the tag’s capabilities, and (c) the high frequency rate that the tag was transmitting data, throughout every day and night.
We’ve released this new information about the route Fred’s tag took from the Pentland Hills to the North Sea in the hope that someone will come forward to help progress the police investigation into Fred’s highly suspicious disappearance. If you know anything, please contact Police Scotland on 101 or the RSPB’s confidential raptor crime hotline 0300 999 0101.
We’d like to put on record our immense gratitude to the two Police Wildlife Crime Officers who have been leading this case. They have gone way above and beyond what we expected them to do (and again, we are not detailing the specifics of their investigation) and they have impressed us with their diligence and professionalism. Many thanks to them for their efforts to date.
We are also grateful to the tag manufacturer and particularly the senior engineers for providing the additional technical data from Fred’s tag and helping us and the police with the analysis.