Conservationists working to protect Scotland’s iconic birds of prey are in an “arms race” with criminals, it has been claimed.
Ian Thomson, head of investigations at RSPB Scotland, was speaking after a series of satellite-tagged birds of prey, including golden eagles and sea eagles, disappeared in suspicious circumstances.
He said satellite transmitters had led to a “massive reduction” in illegal poisoning cases in recent years as those targeting raptors know that if a tagged bird stops moving, somebody will look for it, increasing the chances of their being caught.
But while tagging technology was improving, Mr Thomson said it had also brought about a change in tactics as those who would persecute protected species tried to stay a step ahead.
He said: “The technology is changing all the time. A few years ago these GPS satellite tags could only be fitted to big birds like eagles or cranes or storks and things like that, and now we are fitting them to smaller birds of prey like hen harriers.
“We have tags that weigh 9.5 grams, that are really increasing our capability and the technology is only going to improve year on year.
“But at the same time we have to recognise that in some perverse way we are almost in a strange arms race because those who are killing birds of prey, rather than chucking out half a rabbit laced with carbofuran, now they are wandering about at 2am with thermal imaging gear, with night vision equipment.
“We know from the disappearance of satellite-tagged birds that these birds are being literally shot off their perches in the middle of the night. And that’s difficult to combat and they know that.”
Mr Thomson, speaking on a podcast, said satellite tags were “exceptionally reliable”, but a pattern had emerged over the past decade where tagged birds were disappearing in mysterious circumstances.
He said tags were 25 times more likely to fail suddenly and mysteriously in Scotland than any other country in the world, suggesting the birds were being killed and the transmitters destroyed.
While tagged birds that die naturally can often be recovered, those whose tags stopped in mysterious circumstances, often on land managed for driven grouse shooting, were never seen or heard of again.
He called for greater deterrents for criminals who believe they are “indestructible”.
He said: “The person who raises that gun towards that goshawk or towards that golden eagle, what will be going through their mind is, ‘What are the chances of me being caught, and if I am what are the chances of me being successfully prosecuted’?
“When you get cases where you have video of an individual committing the crime and they still aren’t prosecuted, they’ll be thinking, ‘I’m indestructible here’, so the balance needs to be redressed.”
He added: “They do still get away with it. This is the problem. These crimes are taking place in the middle of nowhere where witnesses are few and far between.”