Golden eagle Fred makes it to First Minister’s Questions in Scottish Parliament

Many thanks to Alison Johnstone MSP for raising the issue of Golden eagle Fred’s highly suspicious disappearance, at First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliamentary chamber this lunchtime.

Here’s what Alison said, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s response:

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green): In 2017, a rare and beautiful young golden eagle was raised in the Scottish borders by the only pair of breeding adults there. He was satellite tagged, and last month he left home for the first time. Less than a week later, he disappeared in the Pentland hills near Currie. His tag stopped sending data for three days, then started again, this time in the North Sea off St Andrews. RSPB Scotland and Raptor Persecution UK regard the disappearance as highly suspicious, and I believe it is likely that the young eagle has been illegally killed.

Donald Dewar described the persecution of birds of prey as “a national disgrace”, but it is still going on. What is the Scottish Government doing in response to the reports? Will the First Minister finally commit to a licensing regime for game bird shooting?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon): First, I agree that the persecution of birds of prey is unacceptable, and I absolutely associate myself with the comments that Alison Johnstone has made in that regard. The Government treats this and sees it as an extremely serious issue.

As Alison Johnstone will be aware, a group was set up following a report on the issue that was commissioned and published last year, and it is looking at various aspects such as licensing and the impact of grouse shooting. I—and, I am sure, Roseanna Cunningham as the responsible minister—will be happy to meet Alison Johnstone to discuss that work in more detail. I am sure that all of us across the chamber are united in agreeing that this is unacceptable and requires to be tackled robustly.

ENDS

The video of this exchange may be viewed on Scottish Parliament TV here (starts at 12.33.20).

It’s not the first time in recent months that illegal raptor persecution has been discussed at such a high level Parliamentary session. Last May, Richard Lochhead MSP raised the issue of video inadmissibility in the case of the shot hen harrier on Cabrach Estate and the Crown’s decision to drop criminal proceedings.

Golden eagle Fred: the SGA doth protest too much

The highly suspicious disappearance of our golden eagle Fred continues to make the news.

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association has issued the following press release today:

GAMEKEEPERS SEEK END TO ‘TRIAL BY MEDIA’ OVER EAGLE.

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association has called for an end to the ‘trial by media’ over a golden eagle which has gone missing near Edinburgh.

Last week, BBC wildlife presenter Chris Packham issued a press release claiming a young satellite tagged eagle had gone missing just miles from the Scottish Parliament, in a wood in the Pentland Hills.

According to the Springwatch presenter, the tag was later found to signal in the North Sea, after appearing to stop transmitting for three days.

A video released to the media by Packham – who actively campaigns for grouse shooting to be banned- implied that the eagle, which has not been located, had been illegally killed.

The video the BBC presenter appeared in, pointed the finger at a grouse moor as it was geographically close to the wood and fields where the bird was understood to be.

Now the SGA has called for an end to what it describes as unsubstantiated speculation and for greater transparency over evidence.

Despite media claims that the area 7 miles to the south of the capital is managed for driven grouse shooting, the moor is used principally as a partridge shoot as quarry numbers are now too low to sustain viable grouse shooting due to high levels of public access.

The area is popular with hikers, dog walkers and mountain bikers from Edinburgh and beyond, with the Pentland Hills welcoming 600 000 visitors per year.

A Spokesman for The Scottish Gamekeepers Association said: “Trial by media has already taken place. Now everyone who has been drawn into this needs the truth as to what happened to this eagle.

It is not enough for people to be implied as being criminals and those in possession of the satellite tag evidence to walk away, after presenting their judgement to the media, then say no one will probably ever know what has happened.

If the tags are as reliable as everyone has been told, then the tag data will surely provide conclusive evidence. Many questions need to be answered including why it could not be located in the sea, if it continued to transmit locational data for several days.

There needs to be greater transparency because there are too many elements to the carefully stage-managed narrative which do not stack up despite its presentation as a fait accompli.

If, by releasing this evidence, in full, to Police Scotland, it helps to bring this to a successful conclusion or prosecution, then the SGA and others would be satisfied that justice, as we have come to expect justice to look like, will have run its course.

In the meantime, serious allegations have been made against a community of people on the basis of a running commentary of media speculation, implication and suggestion which makes a laughing stock of what looks to be a live investigation.”

ENDS

We have provided a response to media enquiries, reproduced in full here:

The circumstances of Fred’s disappearance are highly suspicious and fit with the findings of the Scottish Government’s recent review of the fates of satellite-tagged golden eagles in Scotland, which demonstrated that almost one third of tagged golden eagles have disappeared without trace in areas managed for driven grouse shooting.

Since our initial press release, we have obtained further information from Fred’s tag which corroborate our earlier suspicions that Fred is a victim of illegal persecution. Far from “walking away”, as the SGA claims, this new information has been passed to the police for investigation so we cannot comment further at this stage.

It’s laughable that the SGA is complaining about ‘trial by media’ when one of its own Directors has been using social media to smear and discredit the conservationists involved in this project, suggesting we’ve fabricated the whole story. If the SGA used its time and resources more productively to root out the criminals within the game-shooting industry, eagles like Fred would stand a much better chance of survival“.

ENDS

Meanwhile, we’re still waiting to hear from the SGA whether Scottish gamekeeper Alan Wilson, who was recently convicted of animal cruelty, was a member of the SGA at the time he committed his crime and if so, whether he has now been expelled. Strangely, the SGA has not yet commented.

Emails to: info@scottishgamekeepers.co.uk 

Golden eagle Fred: some facts

The rumour mill about our satellite-tagged golden eagle Fred has been in full-on overdrive since we announced his highly suspicious disappearance last week.

As we’d promised at the start of this project, we set out to provide as much transparency as we could about the circumstances of Fred’s disappearance, including detailed information about his last known location. The problem with doing this is that information then gets accidentally misinterpreted, or deliberately distorted in some cases by those who seek to play down the possibility that Fred has become yet another victim of illegal persecution.

There are many reasons why some would want the public to believe that illegal persecution couldn’t possibly have played a role in Fred’s disapearance. It has become clear to us over the last week or so that various organisations are, behind the scenes, actively pursuing a damage-limitation offensive, particularly some of those involved with the planned reintroduction of golden eagles to south Scotland later this year, and that includes senior officials at the statutory nature conservation agency SNH.

Obviously the highly suspicious disappearance of a golden eagle in south Scotland is going to raise questions about how wise it is to release eagles in a region where persecution is still a problem. Indeed, this has been a long-standing concern about the reintroduction project but has previously been brushed aside by some officials claiming that eagle persecution was an historical, not a current issue. Fred’s suspicious disappearance suggests otherwise but rather than address this concern head on, attempts are currently being made to discredit members of our project team and the project itself.

Let’s just be clear here. At no point have we stated that Fred was killed on a driven grouse moor. We haven’t even stated that he is dead. What we have said is that Fred’s disappearance is highly suspicious, and that, like many other satellite-tagged eagles, he disappeared in an area close to a driven grouse moor. These are indisputable facts.

We have suggested that he was illegally killed, and we have very good reason to think so, which will become clear when we’re able to discuss the details after the police investigation.

At this stage we can address some of the statements that have been made (some of which have been made in good faith, others have not).

  1. Fred’s last tag signal came from a wind farm – incorrect.
  2. Fred last tag signal came from Bonaly Country Park – incorrect.
  3. Nobody went to check on Fred’s welfare while he was alive in the Pentlands – incorrect.
  4. Fred’s tag battery failed to charge in low winter light – incorrect.
  5. There has been no raptor persecution in the Pentlands – incorrect.
  6. There are no driven grouse moors in the Pentlands – incorrect.
  7. Fred did not disappear in an area where driven grouse shooting takes place – incorrect.
  8. Satellite tag mapping suggests that Fred was not actively foraging – incorrect.
  9. Because mountain hares are locally extinct, Fred must have been weak and starving – incorrect.
  10. Fred’s tag was not functioning properly because it was in woodland – incorrect.
  11. A decision was taken not to search for the tag in the North Sea – incorrect.
  12. The police aren’t interested because they are siding with the landowners – incorrect.
  13. Fred’s body was found and the tag had killed him so the story of his disappearance was fabricated to lay the blame elsewhere – incorrect.
  14. Fred was never tagged in the first place – incorrect.

Fred’s story has generated a lot of media interest over the last week, which has been very welcome. Obviously, a lot of people are very angry about Fred’s suspicious disappearance and they have every reason to be. Anger is the appropriate reaction to what looks like yet another incident of illegal raptor persecution. However, we’ve been informed that some people are directing their anger in an abusive way towards members of the Pentlands Ranger Service. Please, think about what you’re saying and to whom. The Ranger Service certainly doesn’t deserve it and we are working closely with them as this investigation continues. Thanks.

Further information about missing satellite-tagged golden eagle Fred

Last week we blogged about the suspicious disappearance of one of our satellite-tagged golden eagles.

‘Fred’ vanished in the Pentland Hills close to Edinburgh in late January and then 3.5 days later his satellite tag indicated that he (or at least his tag) was in the North Sea, some 15 miles offshore from St Andrews until the tag finally stopped sending data a couple of days later (see here).

Since Fred’s disappearance, we have been talking to many experts and among them, the engineers at the tag manufacturing company. They have recently provided us with some further technical data from the tag which are shedding light on the circumstances of Fred’s highly suspicious disappearance.

These new data have been passed to Police Scotland who are following up. Obviously at this stage we are unable to comment further but rest assured we will have more to say in due course.

In the meantime, if anyone has any information about Fred’s disappearance please contact Police Scotland, Tel: 101, or alternatively call the RSPB’s new confidential raptor crime hotline: 0300-999-0101.

Golden eagle ‘Fred’ disappears 7 miles from Scottish Parliament

Last summer, in partnership with Chris Packham, we satellite tagged a shedload of golden eagles in Scotland (see here for project details).

We haven’t blogged much about these eagles since then because they’ve been hanging around in their parents’ territories and those locations need to remain secret.

However, in mid-January 2018, one of those young golden eagles finally decided to leave home and go exploring. He had hatched at a nest site in the Scottish Borders and his parents are the only breeding pair of golden eagles in the region. This nest site has been protected for decades by the landowner and he is fiercely proud of his eagles, so much so that he named this eagle chick Fred after his grandson. The landowner and his gamekeeper joined us last June as we fitted Fred with a state-of-the-art transmitter and we were all excited at the prospect of following Fred’s movements over the coming years, with the hope that he would thrive and help to increase this tiny, vulnerable breeding population in the Borders.

Golden eagle Fred, June 2017. Photo by Ruth Tingay

Fred headed to the Pentland Hills and spent a few days ‘woodland hopping’ around the northern edge, at one point just half a kilometre from the City Bypass.

His tag was working perfectly and was providing us with accurate and frequent GPS locations.

Maps copyright RPUK:

On 20th January, Fred roosted overnight in a shelter belt overlooking a grouse moor (Black Hill) near Balerno. This is a photograph of the roost site. Fred was in the trees at the top left-hand corner of this field.

Fred’s tag continued to record his position there until just before 10am on 21st January, when his tag suddenly and inexplicably stopped. The last signal came from the trees half-way along this shelter belt:

We didn’t receive any new GPS locations from Fred’s tag until three and a half days later when, on the evening of 24 January, Fred’s tag began transmitting again but the GPS location showed it was in the North Sea, some 10 miles offshore from St. Andrews. His tag continued to provide GPS data until 26 January, showing his final position at approximately 15 miles offshore. No further data have been received.

Dr Tingay of RPUK said: “It is beyond doubt that Fred’s disappearance is highly suspicious. Golden eagles don’t generally fly out for miles over large bodies of sea water but even if Fred had done so, apart from defying everything we’ve learned about Scottish golden eagle behaviour, we would have seen excellent tracking data plotting his route given the reliability of his tag.

“While we will probably never know for sure, it seems likely that Fred was killed soon after 10am on 21 January, his tag was hidden to suppress the signal and then he and the tag were dumped in the North Sea. If this is indeed the case, it’s just the latest example of when those who have killed a protected bird of prey have tried to cover up evidence of their crime”.

Chris Packham said: “Once again, we have the suspicious disappearance of a satellite-tagged golden eagle in an area managed for driven grouse shooting. What’s truly shocking about this case is that it didn’t take place in a remote Highland glen miles from anywhere, but it happened within a stone’s throw of Edinburgh, right under the noses of the Scottish Government. What must the good people of Edinburgh think, to learn that golden eagles aren’t even safe on their doorstep? That they’ve been denied the opportunity to see this iconic, magnificent bird in their local hills? This doesn’t bode well for the planned reintroduction of golden eagles to south Scotland, due to begin later this year”.

Over the coming days we’ll be blogging about the implications of Fred’s disappearance for the proposed South Scotland Golden Eagle Reintroduction Project, which was already a controversial issue before Fred’s story even began.

When we launched this golden eagle satellite tagging project at the British Birdfair last year, we said that our project would be different from other satellite-tagging projects in that if any of our tagged eagles ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances, rather than sit on that information for months/years and then only give a vague description of the location where the bird had vanished, we would publish much more detailed information as soon as any police investigation was complete. We’ve fulfilled this promise and we’ve also made a video which includes an exclusive interview with Environment Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham. You can watch it here:

We are immensely grateful to Roseanna Cunningham for granting us an audience despite her incredibly busy schedule. We are also grateful to Police Wildlife Crime Officer Andy Loughlin and the RSPB Scotland Investigations for their quick and diligent response to our concerns.

If anyone has any information about Fred’s disappearance, please contact Police Scotland on 101.

MEDIA COVERAGE

Daily Express here

Scotsman here

STV news here with a fascinating quote from Scottish Land & Estates:

We understand that the bird’s disappearance is not being investigated as a crime.

We need to learn the full facts prior to establishing any conclusions but it should be noted that the location where the eagle disappeared is not an area of intensive grouse shooting“. We’ll be blogging about this quote soon.

The Times here (behind a paywall)

Herald here

BBC news here

Guardian here

Courier here

Press & Journal here

Concern for the safety of one of our satellite-tagged golden eagles

Last summer, in a joint project with Chris Packham, we satellite-tagged a shedload of golden eagles in Scotland (for background project information please see here).

We haven’t blogged much about these eagles yet because they are still hanging out in their natal territories and we need to keep these locations confidential. As soon as the eagles begin to disperse, we’ll be able to share much more information.

However, one of our eagles has recently left its parents’ territory and we are deeply concerned about its safety. We are working closely with Police Scotland and will report in more detail in the very near future.

We are immensely grateful to the Police Wildlife Crime Officer leading this investigation who has been proactive, communicative and very quick to respond.

Update on our shedload of satellite-tagged golden eagles

Earlier this year we satellite-tagged a shedload of golden eagles in Scotland as part of a joint initiative with Chris Packham, funded by two very generous philanthropists (see here for project background).

Our eagles are doing well, all of them still hanging out in their natal territories although a few have started to make some short exploratory excursions beyond these local areas. For obvious reasons, we will not be providing location information until the young birds have dispersed far from their parents’ territories.

We’re getting fantastic data from the tags. These are different tags to those used to track hen harriers so there’s none of this, say, ‘on for a few hours/off for 48 hours’ cycle – our tags are providing positional data around the clock, sometimes at just a few minutes’ interval, so we know EXACTLY where our eagles are at all hours of the day, and night.

Here’s one of our eagles (#929) caught on camera a few weeks ago coming in to feed on a carcass, along with her Mum! (Our field team tell us 929’s Dad has also visited this carcass but is not photographed here).

More updates in due course.

A shedload of golden eagles satellite tagged in new RPUK/Chris Packham project

At last weekend’s British Birdfair at Rutland Water we joined with Chris Packham to launch a new joint project.

Privately funded by a pair of extraordinarily generous and supportive philanthropists, this project has been in development since the New Year. We are grateful not only to our funders, but also to a number of people without whose help the project would have been a non-starter.

This year our project has focused on fitting satellite tags to young golden eagles across Scotland. At this stage we’re not announcing how many eagles have been tagged, or where, exactly, they’ve been tagged (the location of nest sites must remain confidential for obvious reasons), but let’s just say we’ve tagged a shedload. Here’s a small subset:

The tags were fitted in June and July by highly experienced & appropriately licensed fieldworkers, with the support of several landowners, some of whom came along on tagging days. All the tagged eagles have fledged successfully and they are all hanging out in their natal territories, as expected.

Researchers have been satellite-tagging golden eagles in Scotland since 2004. This new technology has revolutionised our ability to better understand golden eagle ecology, and particularly the birds’ early years of life when they leave their parents’ territory and wander around the country before they attempt to settle in a territory of their own and join the breeding population at between 3 to 5 years of age. For an excellent first-hand and simple explanation of how the technology works in practice, have a read of this blog written last week by Stuey Benn of the RSPB.

Understanding golden eagle juvenile dispersal behaviour has important conservation implications because at present, Special Protection Areas designated specifically for golden eagles are based on the number of breeding pairs present in a particular area, and not on the number of juvenile eagles present. Research on 36 satellite-tagged golden eagles, undertaken by Ewan Weston for his PhD (published in 2014), identified nine distinct areas, known as Temporary Settlement Areas (TSAs) where these young birds tended to spend a lot of time during certain months of the year. Here’s a map we’ve created, based on data published in Ewan’s PhD, of these nine TSAs.

The identification of these areas would have been virtually impossible without the use of satellite tags. The data collected from our tagged eagles will contribute to this ongoing scientific research to help determine the importance of these, and perhaps other yet-to-be-discovered TSAs, which may lead in future to some areas being newly designated / protected for golden eagle conservation purposes.

Of course, along with the invaluable scientific data generated by these satellite tags, showing us how golden eagles utilise different landscapes, we are also learning a lot about how one type of land-use, intensively managed driven grouse moors, is impacting negatively on the golden eagle population. This has been known for some time, but the recently published Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review clarified in which particular grouse moor areas satellite-tagged eagles are being illegally killed or are ‘disappearing’ in suspicious circumstances.

When the Review was published in May this year, we created this map to show the significant clustering of satellite-tagged eagles that had either been confirmed as illegally killed or the tags had suddenly stopped working in suspicious circumstances and the tags and eagles had ‘disappeared’ off the face of the earth:

The clusters around the Cairngorms National Park, including the Monadhliaths to the NW and the Angus Glens to the SE, are all areas where the land is intensively managed for driven grouse shooting.

Interestingly, when you overlay these data of killed or ‘missing’ satellite tagged eagles on to the map showing the Temporary Settlement Areas utilised by juvenile golden eagles, this is what you get:

[Yellow stars = satellite-tagged eagles confirmed as illegally killed; red stars = satellite tags that suddenly stopped functioning in suspicious circumstances and the tag & eagle nowhere to be found].

It’s quite clear then, that in some driven grouse moor areas, particularly in the Angus Glens, the Monadhliaths, and the NE and SW areas of the Cairngorms National Park where young golden eagles are spending a lot of time, illegal persecution is an ongoing threat.

Obviously we don’t yet know where our tagged eagles will disperse to, and whether they might head for some of these dangerous TSAs, but we’re about to find out.

We’ll be providing updates on our eagles’ movements over the coming months and if the tag data indicate that any of our birds have come to any harm, we’ll first be reporting it through the proper channels to the Police and then we’ll be publishing appropriate details on this blog.

Stay tuned!

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