WILDLIFE crime investigators raided a Scottish estate after schoolchildren monitoring a rare red kite sparked a major inquiry.
A 45-strong team entered the 25,000-acre Moy Estate, south of Inverness, yesterday morning following a surveillance operation lasting several weeks.
A number of poisoned birds of prey, including red kites, sparrowhawks and merlins, were removed. It was also confirmed that a poisoned grouse carcase had been found.
One of the recovered red kites had been satellite-tagged and adopted by children at Carrbridge School who were monitoring its progress online via the Eyes in the Skies website. Suspicions arose after the signal from the bird stopped moving.
The joint operation involved 25 officers from Northern Constabulary as well as investigators from Scottish Natural Heritage, RSPB Scotland, the Scottish SPCA, Scottish Wildlife Crime Unit and the Scottish Government's Rural Payments Inspectorate.
Outside the estate, Chief Inspector Andrew MacLean, the force's Inverness area commander, said: "This was an intelligence-led operation into the deaths of protected birds, including red kites and other birds of prey which have been found on this estate during the last month and are known to have been poisoned."
He added: "Wildlife crime is a blight on the environment and a serious concern to the public.
"Northern Constabulary consider such crime a serious risk to the safety of the public and have demonstrated today our intention to rigorously deal with reports of wildlife crime, in particular the poisoning of wildlife on open ground which is accessible to the public."
Stuart Housden, director of RSPB Scotland, said: "Serious crimes against our most spectacular birds and wildlife are utterly deplorable, and do major harm to our reputation as a country that values and cares for its wildlife and natural environment.
"There is a growing body of compelling evidence which demonstrates the scale and impact that illegal poisoning is having on the populations of iconic birds of prey such as the red kite and golden eagle."
A RSPB report in March showed that 27 birds of prey were killed last year, including golden eagles, buzzards, red kites and a sea eagle.
Last month three golden eagles, a sparrowhawk and buzzard, were found dead near Skibo Castle in Sutherland amid fears they had been poisoned.
More than 200 Scottish landowners have since called for those involved in the illegal poisoning of birds of prey to face the "full weight of the law".
No-one at the Moy Estate was available for comment yesterday.
Douglas McAdam, chief executive of the landowners' group, The Scottish Rural Property and Business Association, said: "We do not yet know the full facts of this case. We are appalled none the less at what appears to be yet further illegal persecution against Scotland's wildlife, but we do need to await the outcome of the legal process to determine where guilt lies."