IT is an increasingly bitter battle which has seen the advocates for one of Scotland's most iconic birds of prey pitted against a rural industry and mainstay of the countryside economy.

A war of words has broken out between conservationists on one side and gameskeepers and landowners on the other after two young satellite-tagged golden eagles disappeared in suspicious circumstances within hours of each other near the same grouse moor.

A police-led search of the eagles’ last known locations failed to turn up so much as a feather, and it is feared they have been killed and disposed of.

Now their disappearance has led to calls from environmentalists for greater protection for raptors from the Scottish Government, while gameskeepers have hit back with accusations that satellite data is being used to further a campaign against their work.


Adam the eagle in 2018. Pic: Chris Packham/Youtube

The eagles, named Adam and Charlie, were being monitored by TV broadcaster Chris Packham and Dr Ruth Tingay of Raptor Persecution UK as part of a wider scientific study into the movements of young golden eagles in Scotland.

Adam and Charlie had hatched at separate nests in the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park in 2018 and 2017 respectively, and their satellite tags had allowed researchers to follow their movements with incredible precision.

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The birds Adam vanished from the Auchnafree Estate in the Strathbraan area of Perthshire on the morning of April 18.

The eagles’ satellite tags, which had been working perfectly well, both suddenly and inexplicably stopped sending data at locations just two miles apart.

Adam's last position was marked at ground level, on a rural track through the moor. But police found no evidence to suggest the estate's involvement with the disappearances.

Mr Packham said: "We can’t prove that harm has come to Adam and Charlie, nor who might have been responsible, but we can look at the circumstances, look at the science, look at the wider evidence and draw plausible conclusions.

"The Scottish Government has already acknowledged that illegal raptor persecution is an ongoing problem. How many more golden eagles do we have to lose before that same Government takes effective action?"


Grouse moors are vital to the rural economy

"Adam", had been named and adopted by Green MSP Andy Wightman in June last year.

Mr Wightman, the Scottish Parliament’s Species Champion for the golden eagle, named the raptor Adam as a tribute to the late ecologist and mountaineer Dr Adam Watson.

He has now written to the First Minister to call for a ban, or greater regulation, of grouse-shooting moors.

Mr Wightman said: "The cold rage that I felt when I heard of the circumstances of his disappearance has now developed into a determination to discover his fate.

"This latest outrage should be a wake-up call to the Scottish Government that for all their reviews, inquiries and reforms, rampant criminality remains in place across many of Scotland’s driven grouse moors."


Andy Wightman with Adam

The circumstances of the eagles' disappearances, in a region previously identified as a raptor persecution hotspot, are similar to the cases of more than 50 satellite-tagged eagles which have vanished in Scotland, as revealed in a Government-commissioned report published in 2017.

Alix Whitaker, a spokesman for the estate, appealed for anyone with information to contact the police.

He said: “We were absolutely shocked to learn that these two eagles were missing. They have been around the estate for some time now and we were delighted to have them.

“We have been told by the police that neither the estate nor its staff were involved in their apparent disappearance. No-one knows what has happened to these birds."

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In an unconnected yet coincidental move, the Scottish Gameskeepers Association launched a petition at Holyrood yesterday calling for independent monitoring of satellite tags fitted to birds of prey.

They feel that greater accountability could assist Police in prosecuting potential wildlife crime and provide a more transparent record of raptor persecution.

“Accountability and transparency has to be the objective,” said SGA Chairman, Alex Hogg.

“Despite media accusation and trials, no cases of missing satellite tags have ever had the evidential rigour to go to court.

"If Police had the oversight on the data and the independent expertise to analyse it, there is greater potential for prosecution."


But Chris Packham rejected the idea, saying: "The SGA are desperate , not because they’ve been caught with their pants down , but because they’ve go no pants on and they are exposing their ludicrous desperation to the world in a vain attempt to deflect attention.

"It’s embarrassing. And I can only imagine that as well as all the despairing wildlife lovers out there today there are many in the wider shooting fraternity who are sick of their reputations being destroyed by these criminals. "

Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations at the RSPB, accused the SGA of trying to "muddy the waters" by timing the release of information about their petition to come out on a day they would be aware would also see the news break of the two missing eagles.

He said: "The are trying to deflect that yet again we have satellite-tagged birds going missing in highly suspicious circumstances near areas linked to grouse shooting.

"We are totally in favour of independent scrutiny [of the satellite data]. Let's have independent scrutiny of hare-bagging numbers on grouse moors or the number of birds shot for pest control."

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A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The disappearance of any bird of prey in suspicious circumstances is of concern and we would urge anyone with information to contact Police Scotland.

“We are determined to protect birds of prey and have established an independent group to look at how we can ensure grouse moor management is sustainable and complies with the law.”