FOUR more birds of prey have been found dead in Ross-shire, in what is believed to be the worst spate of raptor poisonings on record.
Police have confirmed the number of dead birds discovered in a two-square-mile area of Ross-shire has risen to 16 - 12 red kites and four buzzards.
The raptors were located within an area to the south east of Conon Bridge around Conon Brae, Balvail, Leanaig and Alcaig, and all have been found in the last two weeks.
RSPB Scotland has offered a £5,000 reward in a bid to bring those responsible to justice.
‘Mix of emotions’
Staff and volunteers who have dedicated years to helping birds of prey have spoken of their anger and disappointment about the deaths.
Brian Etheridge, who has worked for the RSPB for 27 years and marks 19 years as a red kite officer in the Black Isle this week, said: “This has been the worst two weeks of my life.
“I have worked with all of the birds – each one was ringed and tagged by me. I was there at the very beginning when they were only a few weeks old and I was there at the end when I went to collect their bodies.
“It’s a huge mix of emotions; I’ve gone from being very, very angry to extremely sad. Some of these birds I’ve known very well and for a very long time.”
One of the dead birds was a 16-year-old female that Brian first tagged in 1998. She had been breeding in the Black Isle for 14 years and had raised between 25 and 30 young – one of which, an eight-year-old female, was also among the dead.
Brian said: “I’ve gone to her nest every year since she first bred back in 2000 and I’ve climbed up to her nest so she probably knew me quite well.
“She was like an old friend and a very familiar sight so I will miss her this year. She had mated with one male for 13 years and he was so faithful. He has been sitting on their nest, waiting for her to come back.
“Something like this can just wipe out so many birds and so many years of work. This is by far the worst example I’ve ever witnessed.
Around 25 volunteers dedicate their free time at the Tollie Red Kite reserve near Conon Bridge, helping to feed the birds and speak to visitors.
Liz Rollinson, 66, from Contin, has volunteered on the project since it began in 2009.
She said: “A lot of people in the local community are interested in the birds and feed them in their gardens or see them flying in the skies.
“The skies are now empty and it just seems so sad, I cannot see rhyme nor reason for it. All that hard work and time and so much effort from an awful lot of people and now this has happened. It’s devastating.”
Another volunteer, Eilidh Smith, 23, from Bonar Bridge, is currently studying for a masters degree in nature conservation.
She said: “It’s quite upsetting, when you know that the RSPB and other people have put so much effort into the red kite project and it’s all for nothing when they can just be wiped out like that. It’s really disappointing that we are still persecuting wildlife like this. It’s something we should have moved past.”
Tollie Red Kites is a partnership between RSPB Scotland and the Brahan Estate, where the centre is located.
Alex Matheson, from the Brahan Estate, said: “I would like to express in the strongest possible terms our total condemnation of any form of illegal poisoning.
“Responsible land managers across the country are working hard to stamp this sort of thing out and show that wildlife crime is just not acceptable.
“Brahan Estate have actively supported the reintroduction of Red Kites in this area from the beginning and we will continue to do so.
“Over the last five or six years we have been working in partnership with the RSPB and the volunteers and we are extremely proud of the Tollie centre and the enjoyment it gives to members of the public. An incident like this, right on our doorstep, is hugely disappointing.”
The wildlife criminal investigation is being carried out by police in in close collaboration with partner agencies, RSPB, SSPCA, Scotland’s Rural College and the Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA).
Duncan Orr-Ewing, of RSPB Scotland, said the charity was offering the “substantial” reward for information leading to a successful conviction.
He added: “This appalling incident highlights the very real threat illegal poisoning poses to fantastic species like red kites.
“The vulnerable Black Isle population in particular has been repeatedly hit by deaths due to illegal poison use.
“The Chilterns population in southern England is nearly ten times bigger, yet both projects started at the same time in 1989, with the same number of birds released into the wild.
“That is a shocking indictment on behaviour of some in this part of rural Scotland.
“We are offering a £5,000 reward for information that leads to a successful conviction and we urge anyone with information relating to this incident to contact Police Scotland so the perpetrators can be identified and brought to justice.”
Police Scotland have not confirmed which toxin was involved in the poisonings but said it had acted quickly, indicating that the birds ingested it close to where they had died.
The red kite became extinct in Scotland in the late 19th century, largely due to persecution, the taxidermy trade and egg collecting.
Between 1989 and 1991, 93 red kites of Swedish origin were reintroduced on the Black Isle. According to the wildlife charity, an estimated 166 red kites from that population were later illegally poisoned between 1999 and 2006.
Other reintroductions have been carried out near Stirling and in Dumfries and Galloway and Aberdeenshire.
The number of birds of prey illegally poisoned in Scotland doubled last year.
Figures from the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime (Paw) Scotland showed six birds were found to have been illegally poisoned, up from three in 2012.
The numbers remain well below a peak of 30 poisoned birds recorded in 2009.
A Police Scotland spokesman said: “Partner agencies would seek to remind members of the public that if anyone finds any further dead birds or animals in the area they are asked to make a note of its location and inform the police on 101.
“Under no circumstances should anyone touch or attempt to recover any dead animal.
“Police are keen to speak to anyone who has any information about the incident and would encourage them to contact Police on 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 or online at http://www.crimestoppers-uk.org/.”