CONSERVATIONISTS are calling for new measures to protect birds of prey after the "highly suspicious" disappearance of a satellite-tagged golden eagle.

RSPB Scotland say the bird is the 12th tagged eagle to go missing in the "black hole" area of the Monadhliath Mountains in seven years and warned that it may have been illegally killed.

Data from the two-year old male's transmitter showed the bird had been living in an upland area, mainly managed for driven grouse shooting, north of Tomatin since early last year.

However in mid-December his tag, which had been functioning as expected, inexplicably stopped transmitting.

A police investigation has not revealed what happened to the bird, and no further data has been received from the satellite tag.

The young eagle, fledged from a nest in the Cairngorms National Park, was paired to a two-year-old female, also fitted with a transmitter.

Duncan Orr-Ewing, RSPB Scotland's Head of Species and Land Management said: "Despite very recent and high-level public warnings from Scottish Government, it appears that criminals intent on killing golden eagles continue to target these magnificent birds, especially in areas managed for driven grouse shooting.

"Patience with self-regulation is at an end and meaningful deterrents are now urgently required.

"We support the introduction of new measures to license driven grouse shooting, including powers for the public authorities to remove such licences, where there is good evidence of criminal behaviour."

However, landowners and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) have cautioned against apportioning blame without evidence of what happened to the bird, and called for data from its electronic tags to be made public.

A n SGA spokesman said: "If it is proven any harm has come to this bird and if it transpires there is evidence that that harm was the responsibility of an SGA member, they will be subject to our very strict wildlife crime disciplinary code.

"The legal process deserves respect before people automatically jump to apportioning blame.

"It is becoming increasingly impossible to gain full transparency surrounding these incidents when those holding the data are the tag owners who then dictate process and message.

"At the same time, these tag owners are actively lobbying to persuade government to legislate against grouse moors.

"If investigations were to have the best chance of success and procedural transparency, this data would be held centrally by an impartial body who could look into everything such as the reliability of the tag, who fitted it, the evidence of criminality which exists and the full range of other factors which could cause a mechanical device to stop signalling after many months in the wild."

David Johnstone, chairman of Scottish Land & Estates, added: "We have no hesitation in urging anyone who can provide information on the matter to contact Police Scotland.

"We are, however, deeply concerned by the assumption by RSPB that this eagle is most likely the victim of a wildlife crime perpetrated on a grouse moor.

"Yet again, we see RSPB acting unilaterally as judge and jury without waiting for those professional experts in the police and the Procurator Fiscals’ office to reach an informed decision as to the actual facts.

Inspector Mike Middlehurst of Police Scotland said: "We are liaising directly with both the RSPB and the estate where the last location was confirmed.

"The latest report suggests some positive improvements in the area of the north Monadhliath so it is disappointing to again hear of the loss of one of these iconic species."