THE soft beat of its wings echoed across the Angus glens, startling mountain hares and grouse. Then silence.
Seven weeks ago, the white-tailed sea eagle known as "bird N" took off from its perch and flew straight into the heart of a mystery. What became of this protected, endangered and most magnificent of birds is now the subject of a police investigation, with claims of an illegal, deliberate killing.
When The Scotsman went on the trail of the missing eagle, following clues across the Angus countryside, we encountered secrecy, suspicion and claims the bird could still be alive: in other words, just the sort of conditions that make this crime - a rapidly growing one across the country - so hard to combat.
In the end, the fate of one of the 15 sea eagles released in Fife in August as part of a reintroduction campaign remained a mystery. despite our best efforts.
The start of our journey was somewhat ominous. "Be careful you don't get shot," said a cagey local farmer, apparently jokingly, when told of our search for information about a supposedly murdered eagle.
Then, more seriously, he added: "It's a touchy subject, very close to people's hearts. Just be careful...I don't mean that in a nasty way."
He knew nothing about the eagle or who might have decided to rid the area of this top predator, and, like others, was reluctant to give his name.
While the last native sea eagle was shot in 1918, a reintroduction programme that began in the 1970s on the west coast - where there are now 42 breeding pairs centred around Skye, Mull and the Western Isles - has been so successful it has been extended to other parts of Scotland.
Yet it seems not everyone has welcomed the return of Scotland's largest bird of prey, with the RSPB and others noting the lack of eagles in the east of the country, where shooting estates are more common.
The disappearance of bird N, a gift from Norway, comes at a time when the slaughter of Scotland's birds of prey is at its highest level in 20 years.
Although no remains have been found, a tracking device fitted to the bird has stopped giving out a signal, suggesting it has been disabled. It is designed to give out a special "mortality signal" if the bird fails to move for several hours and should withstand the impact of a fall.
This alone might not have prompted a police investigation, but an informant has come forward, offering the name of someone said to be responsible for killing the bird.
Alan Stewart, Tayside Police's wildlife and environment officer, said last week that the eagle's apparent death was "really scandalous". He went on: "Here we are trying to reintroduce birds that have been killed off 100 years ago, and the allegation is one has been killed already, just a few months into the release programme. Most shooting estates give us no cause for concern, but the particular estate named by the informant has been at the centre of concerns over illegal practices in the past few years."
The question that led us off the main A90 road, just north of Forfar, was: to what estate did he refer?
An early encounter with Patrick Harper, 69, who lives in a rented cottage near Fern, illustrated the contempt felt by many in the countryside for whoever may have pulled the trigger or laid the trap for the missing eagle.
"It's a bloody disaster, isn't it? Any bird has a right to life, as far as I'm concerned. Birds of prey live on killing birds, but it's a natural thing," he said.
Another local man, who said he had a gun and went shooting occasionally, said eagles were "nice to see" but argued that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds went too far.
"I'm personally against the RSPB campaign, that no bird of prey ever should be controlled. Nature is all about balance, and the RSPB has got it wrong. That having been said, I've nothing against sea eagles at all," he said.
"There aren't many of them and so far as I'm aware they don't do any damage to anyone. I'm quite sure all gamekeepers and farmers are happy to see them."
But, as with Mr Harper, he was unable to offer any hard facts.
Then a call came identifying the Glenogil Estate as the one at the centre of the police investigation. It is owned by John Dodd, one of Scotland's most distinguished figures in the financial world and a founder member of the firm Artemis Investment Management. He is known as "the profit hunter".
His 9,670-acre estate, where a day's shooting for a party of eight to ten people can cost close to 5,000, is a major operation, well known as an all-round shooting estate, particularly for pheasant and partridge, but also for grouse.
Its green Land Rovers are a common sight on the roads: there were three parked outside the estate's "big house" at Auchnacree and more at a nearby sawmill. And in the surrounding fields, scores of pheasant and partridge were to be seen.
People say Mr Dodd, who bought the estate four years ago when it was put on sale at offers over 4 million, has invested heavily in the area, renovating many buildings - including the local Drovers Inn, which he owns - and employing local people. "He's done a lot of good for the area, done up all these houses, and local tradesmen have done all right out of him," said a well-known figure living to the south of Glenogil.
At Auchnacree, a member of staff who answered the door said no-one was home, and when asked where the head gamekeeper might be found, they gave directions to the sawmill. Phil Herd was in a decidedly taciturn mood when approached and asked to talk "about a white-tailed sea eagle". He said: "I've nowt to say about it. Angus is a big place; it could be any estate."
When pressed, he was even less forthcoming, saying as he walked away: "I've nowt to say about it. Speak to the police."
Driving into Glenogil, a reporter and photographer from The Scotsman were met by a man who emerged from a green Land Rover. "It's not a day for taking pictures", he said, presumably referring to the mist, which, like the fate of the missing sea eagle, has refused to clear.
Glenogil is being investigated by police, but the loss of a tracking signal could be down to a malfunctioning device, while the informant's second-hand account has been dismissed as "badly informed rumour" by those on the estate.
A spokesman for the RSPB said this illustrated the need for people to come forward with any evidence - one way or the other - that they have.
"Wildlife crime happens in extremely remote areas and, therefore, the chance of evidence being found is reliant on chance," he said. "It is important that people are vigilant and contact the police, giving locations of whatever they have found, whether it be a poisoned bait or a dead bird. We also need dedicated wildlife crime officers in every Scottish police force."
The RSPB recorded 853 cases of raptor persecution in Scotland between 2001 and 2006, but there were only 12 successful prosecutions.
ESTATE THREATENS TO SUE POLICE OVER PRESS STATEMENT
GLENOGIL Estate is understood to be considering legal action against the police over an official statement issued about the alleged killing of the sea eagle, and strongly denies any wrongdoing.
When contacted by The Scotsman, the estate owner, John Dodd, said he had been advised not to comment publicly. However, it is understood he is considering taking Tayside Police to court, even though the press release did not actually name Glenogil as the estate in question. A source close to the estate said it was believed those with local knowledge would have been able to identify Glenogil from the information contained in the statement. The source confirmed Mr Dodd had been spoken to by police, looked into the allegation that the sea eagle had been killed on the estate and satisfied himself it was untrue.
"It's based on a rumour, rather than actual evidence. It is rumoured to have been done. Maybe it flew into power lines - the last two [sea eagles] were killed by flying into power lines."
The claims made by the informant had been "dismissed as so badly informed" by staff on the estate, he added. "If the police have evidence, why haven't they charged the person involved? What they do is put out a carefully worded press release," said the source. "It's not particularly fair, is it? It's death by 1,000 knives either way. They have made this kind of press release; they have sprayed it in the press. Either way, the estate is going to be blackened."
Glenogil was raided by 50 police and other searchers in relation to a wildlife-crime investigation last year. Police have not pressed charges, but have three years to bring a case. In a letter published in The Scotsman today, Alex Hogg, of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, said: "This appears to be one of the worst examples of anti-gamekeeper propaganda put out by the RSPB and police concerning wildlife crime."
Shooting estates worth 200 million every year
SCOTLAND'S shooting estates are the main providers of country sports and are an important part of the rural economy.
As one of the key drivers of the tourism industry, they generate around 200 million in income a year while providing thousands of jobs, directly and indirectly, in remote parts of the country where employment can sometimes be hard to find for local people.
It is estimated that there are four million country-sports participants in the UK, with many more travelling to Scotland from overseas.
It is also believed that around 2,000 people are employed directly and indirectly by the industry.
Earlier this year, a scheme devoted to supporting tourism on the estates was established by VisitScotland.
The first of its type, the Field Sports Welcome scheme covers a wide range of shooting "markets", from game, wildfowl and rough shooting to deer stalking.
It aims to help visitors with an interest in field sports to find the right sort of holiday accommodation for their needs, while promoting Scotland, which already has an international reputation, as a "country-sports destination".
VisitScotland has already highlighted the possibility of expansion in the sport.
Officials with the tourist body have said they believe tourism revenue from the sector could potentially be increased by as much as 50 per cent by 2015.
Stop them now
THE Scotsman is committed to helping the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals catch those responsible for killing birds of prey and other wildlife. Information about raptor poisonings and other incidents of wildlife crime can be passed to police via the National Wildlife Crime Unit in North Berwick on 01620 893607.
Good news as the surviving eagles explore new territory
SINCE they were released in August in Fife, the 15 young white-tailed eagles have caught the imagination of Scotland's birdwatchers.
Reports of the bird being killed in Angus were greeted with disgust - but what of the other eagles released by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in a joint project with Scottish Natural Heritage and the Forestry Commission?
The birds were flown to Scotland from Norway, as in the 1970s, when white-tailed eagles, also known as sea eagles, were reintroduced to the west coast. The bird had been resident in Scotland until the last one was shot dead in 1918.
Since the end of August, two birds have died on power lines, but the RSPB and public have been busy spotting the remaining 12.
Claire Smith, the RSPB's east of Scotland sea-eagle project officer, said: "In the first couple of weeks, they stayed very close to the release site, then started wandering, so we got reports from all over Fife. Some made their way down to the Forth estuary, within two to three weeks. Then two male birds headed up the coast. One reached St Fergus and a lot of people have gone to see it."
Several birds have been spotted around Perth, and along the Rivers Tay and Almond, while others were seen close to Scone and near Carnoustie in Angus.
Another young eagle, called "T", was spotted at Argaty, near Doune, at the red kite feeding station.
Mike McDonnell, head ranger with the Argaty red kites project, said: "We're used to seeing dozens of kites above the farm. They're large birds, but when this much larger shape appeared, I knew I was looking at something special."
Ms Smith said: "The public response has been great. I've had lots of e-mails from people upset at the reports of the dead eagle. We've had more than 750 sightings in about three months. On the west coast, where they have about 200 birds, they get 500-600 sightings a year, so we're already well ahead. All information goes into our database."
Ms Smith also tracks the eagles via radio transmitters strapped to them. Sea eagles were also spotted in Anstruther, Fife, and at Cullaloe local nature reserve, near Burntisland.
Neil Mitchell, warden at the Scottish Wildlife Trust wildlife reserve at Montrose Basin, was excited when one bird spent around two weeks on the reserve: "People couldn't believe what they were looking at - everyone was very positive, even farmers, who were phoning up to say, 'We've seen it' and let me know where it was."
Ms Smith added: "They're about seven months old now and still exploring. They won't settle anywhere until they're four or five. They're a dark, chocolate brown and don't have white tails yet."
• If you spot a white-tailed sea eagle this weekend, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or write to: Wildlife Watch, The Scotsman, 108 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh, EH8 8AS.
WHAT DO I DO?
Make a record of wildlife you see this weekend. Take pictures and/or make notes and e-mail to email@example.com or post them to: Wildlife Watch, The Scotsman, 108 Holyrood Rd, Edinburgh, EH8 8AS.
WHAT NOTES SHOULD I TAKE?
Note down: the name of the species; date you saw it; where you saw it (preferably including a postcode or a six-figure grid ref); your name and details. The Scotsman will collect the details and pass them to the SWT and BRISC, who may use them in their work.
WHICH CREATURES SHOULD I LOOK FOR?
We want to hear about all species, from the coast and countryside to urban parks and gardens.
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