By Alistair Grant

DOZENS of protected hen harriers have disappeared or been found dead in the last two years, campaigners have said, amid claims of widespread illegal killings on grouse moors.

Dr Ruth Tingay of Raptor Persecution UK has compiled a list of 42 birds – most of which were fitted with satellite tags – which have gone missing or been killed since 2018, including 18 in Scotland.

She hopes new legislation passed in Holyrood will allow Police Scotland to set up surveillance cameras and catch those who may be responsible. 

Dr Tingay, who also runs the not-for-profit Wild Justice with TV’s Chris Packham and environmental campaigner Dr Mark Avery, described the numbers as “pretty horrific”.

She added: “Raptor persecution in general has been happening for decades, even though these birds have been protected since 1954. 

“It’s come to public attention in recent years because there’s been more of us campaigning about it.”

Dr Tingay said there are “hotspots” for disappearances in Scotland and the wider UK. 

She said compiling the list has a “shock value”. 

She added: “We see this so often with cases coming up pretty much week in, week out, and people almost become desensitised to it. 

“But when you see a list compiled like that, and you realise the extent of it, it makes you stop and think.”

RSPB Scotland recently raised concerns over the disappearance of two hen harriers during the coronavirus lockdown. 

It said the birds, which were satellite tagged, were last traced on grouse shooting moors in Cairngorms National Park.

The landowners strongly denied involvement and said there are “a whole variety of reasons why a satellite tag may have stopped working”.

In June, MSPs passed the Animals and Wildlife Bill, which will increase the penalty for wildlife crimes to a maximum of five years imprisonment and an unlimited fine for the most serious offences, such as killing and injuring wild animals.

The legislation will also extend the time allowed to investigate wildlife crimes. 

Dr Tingay hopes the changes will pave the way for police to be able to set up surveillance cameras in known hotspots.

Ian Thomson, RSPB Scotland’s head of investigations, said “Despite decades of legal protection, hen harriers are routinely persecuted on driven grouse moors, and this has led to a substantial decline in Scotland’s population of this species. 

“Despite the country being under lockdown two satellite-tagged birds disappeared in highly suspicious circumstances in April, while last year, as well as other tagged birds inexplicably vanishing in Scotland’s uplands, birds were found caught in illegal traps on grouse moors in Perthshire and South Lanarkshire.

“Any new legislation that helps the police target the criminals who are killing these birds is very welcome”.

A spokesman for Scottish Land & Estates said: “The annual wildlife crime report, published by the Scottish Government in conjunction with Police Scotland, is the only official record of confirmed wildlife crime. 

“The most recent report, covering 2018, listed two incidents of crime against hen harriers. Incidents of persecution of birds of prey have dropped to historically low levels over the past decade but as a member of the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime in Scotland we remain fully committed to stamping out all wildlife crime.

“This includes our ongoing support for tougher penalties for those found guilty of such crimes.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said it is “committed to protecting animals, including birds of prey, which is why we have taken action to prioritise wildlife crime”. 

She said: “The Animals and Wildlife Act increases the maximum penalty for the most serious wildlife crimes to up to five years imprisonment and an unlimited fine, and extends the time available to Police Scotland to investigate it. It is for Police Scotland, who act independently of ministers, to determine the most appropriate techniques to deploy during investigations.”