New satellite tag to detect illegal killing of golden eagles in Cairngorms National Park, eagle-killing hotspot

Press release from Cairngorms National Park Authority (23 March 2019)

Cutting edge technology to provide new insight into lives of Scotland’s golden eagles

An innovative new type of satellite tag has been designed to provide a boost to understanding raptor movements and behaviour, as well as help understand the fate of birds which die in the Cairngorms National Park and more widely across Scotland.

Over the next 18 months some young Golden Eagles in and around the Cairngorms National Park will be fitted with a novel ‘Raptor Tracker’ tag, as part of a trial which will provide key information on movements and behaviour, such as whether a bird is feeding or resting. Most importantly, it will provide an instant fix on any birds which die.

Tags in current use are limited in what information they can provide on the exact location of any bird which dies.  This new tag uses the ‘geostationary Iridium’ satellite network and ensures that signal information is always available. Crucially, it has been developed with multiple sensors; these immediately send a ‘distress’ signal, with an exact location, back to base if unusual behaviour is detected. This early warning system has the added benefit of helping to rapidly identify and recover birds which have died.

[An illegally killed satellite-tagged golden eagle, believed to have been trapped on a grouse moor in the Angus Glens resulting in its legs almost being severed, and then dumped in a layby several km away, inside the Cairngorms National Park, where it was left to die an horrific death. Photo by RSPB]

Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said: This is great news for improving our understanding of eagle behaviours, and in the fight against wildlife crime. The tags should make a real difference in deterring would-be criminals, as well as playing a key role in establishing exactly what happened, should any of these magnificent birds of prey disappear or die in unusual circumstances.”

Grant Moir, CEO of the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) said: “Raptor conservation and tackling wildlife crime is one of the aims of the recently launched Cairngorms Nature Action Plan 2019-2023. This is an exciting breakthrough in the technology around raptor conservation, understanding the birds and combatting wildlife crime.”

Robbie Kernahan, Head of Wildlife Management, of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) added: “This exciting new technology will give us new information on the movements of these iconic birds. This should also be a significant deterrent to anyone thinking of persecuting raptors, as we will have detailed information on birds’ movements in the minutes leading up to their death.”

Charlie Everitt, UK National Wildlife Crime Unit commented: “This new tag is a significant step forward in using technology to research further the intriguing ranging behaviour of Golden eagles. However, the implications for preventing wildlife crime and as an aid to enforcement are also very apparent. I look forward to the trial and working closely with colleagues in CNPA and SNH.“

Phil Atkinson, Head of International Research, BTO said: “BTO has been developing new tagging technologies for several years, working to increase the quality and type of information collected. These new ‘Raptor Tracker’ tags have the potential to reveal new aspects of Golden Eagle behaviour, providing fascinating insights into their lives. We are looking forward to the trial and what it reveals.”

The CNPA and SNH have been working on this for over two years, and for the last six months the British Trust for Ornithology has been involved in developing the new tag. The tags will be placed on birds over the next 18 months to trial them. Changes can be made to the tags remotely to ensure that they are working optimally.

If the trial proves successful, the organisations will look at putting these on more Golden Eagles and also the potential miniaturisation of the technology to allow similar tagging of Hen Harriers and other species.


Some of what has been written in this press release is absolute nonsense, in terms of the limitations of some of the highly sophisticated satellite tags currently deployed on golden eagles. However, to focus on that would detract from the bigger picture of what is being proposed, and that’s far more important to discuss.

The development of a tag that can potentially send what amounts to a distress signal from the exact location and at the exact time the tagged eagle is being illegally killed is to be warmly welcomed. If this tag works as the manufacturers claim it will, it will provide wildlife crime investigators with high quality evidence of the precise location of the crime, which currently can only be inferred from tag data depending on the tag’s ‘duty cycle’, which determines when it’s programmed to transmit data to the tag operator (this can vary between a matter of hours and a number of days, depending on tag type). That would be a seriously good development.

What it wouldn’t do is to identify the individual criminal, especially if the crime took place on a large grouse moor estate where multiple gamekeepers are employed (which is where most of the golden eagle killing in Scotland has taken place). In those situations, the wildlife crime investigation wouldn’t get any further than the current situation we see playing out so often today –  that is, the body and the tag removed from the scene and destroyed, “no comment” interviews from all suspects and no way for the police to identify the actual individual responsible. Without that identification, a prosecution cannot proceed.

That’s not to say that the estate would get off scot free though, as they currently do. Conservationists have been arguing that the pattern of evidence from the current raptor satellite tags that suddenly and inexplicably ‘disappear’ should be sufficient evidence for SNH to impose General Licence restrictions on the offending estates. For some reason (unexplained, as far as we can tell), this has not been happening, even though the Environment Cabinet Secretary acknowledges the significance of the data pattern (see her editorial in the Government’s annual wildlife crime report). However, if this new tag can do what is claimed it can do, there’s no question that that information should be accepted by SNH and sanctions should be applied to the estate involved.

It’s great that this tag will be trialled in and around the Cairngorms National Park, given that some of the more intensively-managed grouse moors in and at the edge of the Park are well-known golden eagle-killing hotspots, as shown in this map derived from data provided in the golden eagle satellite tag review in 2017. It’s interesting that none of the people quoted in the press release mentioned this fact!

It is though, very pleasing indeed to see such senior figureheads recognise that the deployment of satellite tags on threatened raptor species is an acceptable and important conservation tool and a helpful investigative tool for detecting wildlife crime. It seems the concerted campaign by several meat heads in the gamekeeping world, which has included disgraceful personal attacks and smears on the integrity of those who fit satellite tags, has fallen on deaf ears.

We look forward to hearing about the field trials on this new tag in due course. Well done to all involved.

24 thoughts on “New satellite tag to detect illegal killing of golden eagles in Cairngorms National Park, eagle-killing hotspot”

  1. Sadly the piece I heard on BBC Radio 2 news today had Robbie stating that Golden Eagles were doing well in Scotland as if to downplay the effects of persecution. He should have said they are doing well in parts of Scotland where there are fewer driven grouse moors. Disappointed with SNH yet again.

  2. Aye, but it’s not only the land grouse moor owning/gamekeeping community who talk negatively in regards to satellite tagging. The Director of Songbird Survival, Keith Cowieson has frequently cast doubt on their efficacy and their inability to differentiate between predation by other creatures and persecution by man. Let’s hope that this latest development combined, with the SNH Commissioned Report 982 in regard to the persecution of Golden Eagles, allows him to alter his opinion and agree that satellite tagging is now an extremely effective tool against these crimes.

        1. Thats it, you’ve cracked it. Its the Cows killing the Eagles & no doubt all the other Raptors & the Hares too. 😄

    1. Why would you take even the slightest bit of notice of Keith Cowieson, when songbirdsurvival is a dreadful pro shooting AstroTurf group? What next, you’ll tell us Ian Botham and ‘you forget about the birds’ have concerns about tagging? They are both utterly irrelevant and completely insincere organisations.

  3. Is that the same Grant Moir that had to be enlightened by Brian Etheridge at Hen Harrier Day Highlands 2018 as to how many pairs of hen harriers there were in the Cairngorms National Park?

    This is good news for eagle protection.

  4. If i was a teacher i would wonder which of the top 3 was cribbing of whom. They couldn’t even be bothered to put their own work into it. How can i trust people with so little passion, commitment or even interest?
    These tags combined with imminent licensing (if not i will never vote SNP again) with strict penalties and a low threshold of proof should finish off intensive grouse moors and the crime they depends on, for good.

  5. This is gr eat news for our beleagured birds if prey. I hope to raise money to support this initiative, either to fund tags or to research into smaller tags for use on Hen Harriers. I hope that RPUK will support this.

    1. Why wouldn’t they support this, after all of their hard work highlighting the issues? That seems an odd question: what are you implying?

      1. I did not mean to be at all critical of RPUK, who have done excellent work and which I 100% support, but putting their name to an initiative to raise money may not be something they would wish to do. I think the reply to my earlier post would imply that they will be supportive if the tags do what is expected. Let’s see what happens.

      2. This sounds like a great advance in technology if it all goes to plan and one hopes it does. Making it small enough to fit harriers, Goshawk, SE Owl and Peregrine would also be an absolute boon in the fight against persecution. I look forward to seeing some of the results.

  6. It is just painful watching some of these people’s performances ;
    When the representative of this killing zone can’t even parrot the correct recent survey data … how is he employed there ?
    He used the old data, thereby underestimating the breeding population by over 20%, missing the perfect opportunity to illustrate correctly just how well the Golden eagle is doing outside grouse moors even with the rather thin prey base that exists north and west.
    He is so disinterested it is hardly surprising that he presides over such a population sink and still pretends that partnerships with the criminals can work.
    Homer Simpson would have been more eloquent and engaging !
    It is like being constantly beaten around the head it’s so predictably dire…….
    The tech is improving but we’ll see if the criminals are still able to remove dead eagles with impunity.
    I won’t hold my breath.
    Only a regulated shoot with a full quota of breeding and wintering raptors should be allowed.
    Silly me I forgot that doesn’t increase the capital values of the estates – only standing room only grouse and a few nervous raptors does that.

    Keep up the pressure !

  7. its a terrible shame that this beautiful part of the country is used to give these estate owners more money than they ought ever need and pay animal lovers worst of enemies, the ghastly game killers, the right to kill innocent wildlife all the time. to fill the air with toxic carcinogens which spread for miles and miles . If an eagle is found to have died , via this new tag, on an estates land then that owners ought to be fined a lot, say £10,000. end of.

  8. It may take us one step closer but…..without very serious consequences, the killers will continue to kill.They consistently demonstrate that they do not give a shit for the law.Very meaningful custodial sentences only for offenders please…….and of course indefinite licence removal.
    The law makers must take these obscenities as seriously as the perpetrators .

    1. Good points. Do Wild Justice plan to lobby for tougher sentencing for wildlife crime? I’ll dig into my pockets to help fund that one.

      1. All the evidence shows that it is not the punishment that deters criminals, but the likelihood of getting caught. The hope is that this inititative makes it much more likely that the persecuters will be. Also, the biggest deterent would be the loss of a gun licence. I am writing to find out if anyone found guilty of willdife crime still has their licence intact. It is a far greater pennatly than a fine which the land owner will probably pay anyway.

        1. You are correct in referring to the likelihood of being caught as being a factor that deters crime.

          As for the situation with firearms licences and shotgun certificates. There appears to be no public access to

          such information. Why the secrecy one may ask. The only benefactors of such secrecy are the criminals. I

          would wager that very few people lost their weapons as a result of being convicted of wildlife crime.

          As for the enhanced technology that may well quickly pinpoint when a bird has died. That could prove very

          useful, but will not guarantee prosecution or even arrest. No matter how many birds are quickly pinpointed

          as having died on a particular estate that information alone will not be evidence that can support a

          conviction. Without the ability to rapidly secure evidence that can support prosecution all that is left is

          evidence that can only support suspicion and that alone amounts to little. Major criminals sneer at being

          suspected. In fact they arrogantly get a kick out of people “knowing” they are guilty and being powerless to

          do anything about it.

  9. I’d make 2 points here about this news.
    The first is that although the intent is aimed primarily at the Cairngorms National Park, no one has told the birds of this fact. They will roam far and wide, likely all over Scotland, and may well decide to visit other countries. It would be by no means unusual.
    The second point is this. Will the organised criminal element discuss how to avoid the worst possible effects of the arrival of these birds in the trial? Is there an effective way?
    Surely the best way forward is to stop killing raptors. They will then not need to employ any existing methods which allow them to kill raptors when attempting to nest, nesting, feeding and roosting. Are they yet ready to countenance this?
    They need to be aware that the erstwhile supporters of this organised crime, and there is at present no shortage of them, may not be so willing in future to continue their past support.
    The leaders of the organised criminals need to assess if they can actually financially afford to allow raptors in, and make a decision before these birds are tagged as to whether the risks they will be taking are worth the candle.
    Scientific evidence has shown that Hen Harriers are 10 times more likely to die or disappear in areas dominated by grouse moors. 40% of Eagles “disappear”. Are their supporters not interested in facts? I hope that they are. If not those who are will call them out.

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